“It’s coming for you, Curse Boy.”
Marshal scowled but ignored the taunt. He crouched in the snow and reached a hand out to trace the footprint in front of him. His fingers shook and he drew the hand back, hoping the others hadn’t noticed.
Titus, the young man who had spoken, walked around Marshal and whistled. “Look at how far apart the footprints are,” he said. “That thing must be huge.”
Marshal nodded. The footprints, three-clawed like a lizard, were as wide as his handspan, and at least a yard apart.
“Not so huge,” said Victor, the third member of their group. He pushed his way past a small pine tree to get a look from a different angle. “From what I hear, their legs are spread out from their bodies. Look, you can see where its stomach dragged through the snow a little.” He pointed.
Marshal craned his neck to see. As the only cursed individual in their village, his interest was more than curiosity. If these tracks really belonged to the creature known as a curse-stalker, he needed to be wary. According to his mother, curse-stalkers weren’t actually drawn to curses, but to magic itself. But since curses were the most obvious manifestation of magic most people would ever see, the idea persisted.
“It looks like Balaes is ready for us,” Victor said. All three boys looked back toward the blacksmith’s home and ruined workshop. The blacksmith, Balaes, gestured toward the ruin, saying something to the woman beside him.
Marshal and the other two hurried back. As they approached, Balaes bent and reached down through the snow. He pulled up an iron ingot, and tossed it into a pile next to the wall of his home. Snow had piled up this winter, both in the branches of the surrounding trees and on the roofs. It had only been a matter of time until one of the trees collapsed. Unfortunately, it had happened directly above the roof workshop.
A hand held Marshal back. “You aren’t wanted here,” Titus said. “We can handle it.”
“I think you’ll find that you need his help.” Aelia, Marshal’s mother, stepped away from the blacksmith. “With half of the town’s men laid up with the fever, and the rest gone to check the pass…”
Balaes scowled, a common expression for him.
“Got to clear everything out of the way before we try to lift the trunk,” Balaes said. He waved at the young men. “You three get busy on that, and then we’ll work together.”
Marshal stepped away from Titus and pulled at a fallen branch. Balaes was the biggest and strongest man in Drusa’s Crossing. If he needed help lifting something, it must be enormously heavy. He eyed the tree trunk.
“Maybe when we’re lifting it, we accidentally let it slip on Curse Boy here,” Titus said.
Victor helped him lift a larger branch and glanced at Marshal. “He can hear, you know,” he said. “He just can’t speak.”
“It’s more than that!” Titus made sure the older adults were out of earshot. “I hear he has a sign up in his house to remind him about the difference between nodding and shaking his head! We could talk about anything in front of him and he wouldn’t know half of what we’re saying.”
Titus’ lowered eyebrows and half-smile irked Marshal almost more than his words. Aelia did have a sign in the house. It read, “Nod is yes. Shake is no.” Marshal repeated it to himself constantly. Truthfully, he had no trouble whatsoever understanding other people. His problem, caused by his curse, came in communicating for himself. He couldn’t speak, and struggled just to remember nodding and shaking. Aelia had tried throughout his life to teach him hand signals, but every time, the knowledge just slipped away from his mind. After eighteen years, she had finally given up.
Victor looked at Marshal again, then frowned and tried to shift a piece of timber from the fallen wall. “He understands more than you think,” he said.
“Just because you’re Bonded to him doesn’t mean you have to defend him, you know,” Titus said.
“Shut your mouth!” Victor’s face tightened. “You think I like it? I can’t ever leave this place unless he does! I hate it. I hate him.”
“So…” Titus inclined his head toward the tree trunk. “Like I said, maybe an accident happens, and you’re free from that.”
Victor’s gaze shifted between the other two, but his eyes had narrowed. Marshal tried to focus on the work. He knew that Victor resented the Binding between them, even hated him for it. And like so many other things, it wasn’t Marshal’s fault.
Actually, he did own some fault to that one. When the boys were only eight summers old, Marshal had saved Victor’s life, stopping him from plunging over a cliff. By the Laws of Bindings and Cursings, Victor became bound to Marshal until he could repay the debt. Marshal couldn’t feel it, but he knew Victor could. Any time Marshal stumbled into the slightest bit of danger, Victor felt compelled to rush to his rescue.
Since the village already considered Marshal a freak due to his curse, Victor’s discomfort grew over the years. Now that both boys had grown into men, discomfort had turned into hatred. With the Binding in place, Victor could never fulfill his own dream of joining the army, no matter how often he practiced with the worn-out flail he often carried on his belt.
Victor yanked the piece of timber out from the pile of debris and threw it, barely noticing where it fell. “Breaking a Binding like that… it’s not good. That’s what they say, anyway. So let’s just… just work here. No more talk.”
Titus shrugged. All three of them continued at their work. The sun rose higher, at times making things too bright as it reflected off the omnipresent piles of snow. Despite the cold air, all three worked up a healthy sweat by the time midday arrived.
Balaes’ oldest daughter, Careen, brought the boys some bread and cheese. Several of the other young women of the village joined the gathering, laughing and talking together.
Marshal sat apart from the others. The girls were all near his age, but none of them spoke to him. Victor, with his rugged physique and sandy blond hair, drew most of their admiration, especially Careen’s. Titus was somewhat skinnier, but his dark eyes and hair worked wonders with his lopsided grin and smattering of facial hair. The girls loved his company almost as much as Victor’s.
Marshal knew that his looks weren’t the problem. A stranger would have considered him fairly well-built, muscular, and somewhat attractive, with his light brown hair and eyes. But the stranger wouldn’t know about his curse, wouldn’t know that he couldn’t communicate, and wouldn’t know about the shaking.
He took another bite of bread and looked at his hands. Both felt like thousands of tiny needles poked them all over. He dealt with this feeling daily, sometimes all day. He was used to it. But sometimes the buzz from the needles led to the shaking. He hated the shaking most of all, because he couldn’t hide it.
Victor and Titus took great delight in showing the curse-stalker’s tracks to the girls. Most of them glanced at Marshal throughout this conversation. He knew they were talking about him, wondering if this creature was coming after him.
Aelia emerged from visiting with the blacksmith’s wife. She started toward Marshal, but the girls intercepted her and crowded around. They had always been drawn to Aelia, perhaps because she was younger than their mothers. She had been younger than these girls when Marshal was born.
“Mistress Aelia, did you see the tracks?”
“What a monster it must be!”
“Should we fear this creature, or is it only after… him?”
Marshal looked up in time to see the girl look directly at him. Some slight color came to her cheeks as she shifted her gaze away. Aelia took a breath, briefly closed her eyes, and then smiled at the girls.
“You all know the thrummers, yes?”
“The bugs? The ones that bite you?”
“The only good thing about winter is that the thrummers are all dead!” Careen said. Victor and two of the other girls laughed.
Aelia smiled. “The thrummers will bite anyone, as you know,” she said. “But they are especially drawn to anyone with magic in their blood. When they taste it, they glow and thrum louder than ever.”
“I’ve never seen one glow!” Titus proclaimed with narrowed eyebrows.
“I’m sorry for you,” Aelia said. “When they do, they’re amazing to watch. But the curse-stalkers are the same as the thrummers in some ways. They will attack anything that moves, but they are especially drawn to those with magic in their blood.”
She looked around the group. “So yes, we should be cautious. While the old tales might make you think this creature is only interested in my son, the truth is that it is dangerous to all.”
The young people looked around at each other. A couple of them glanced briefly at Marshal again.
“I thought you boys were here to work!” Balaes called from the front of the house.
Marshal, Victor, and Titus jumped back to their tasks. By now, they had cleared almost everything out of the way. Balaes brought an axe and chopped off the tree’s remaining branches and its narrow top. The boys dragged them out of the way. At last, only the trunk remained. The four men together rolled it on top of a few boards to give them a gap underneath.
Balaes looked over his helpers and the trunk. He rubbed his scruffy beard and twisted his mouth as he appeared to think it over. He blew out a long puff of mist.
“I’ll take this end,” he said, pointing to the thickest part of the trunk at its base. “Victor, you stand here.” He pointed to a spot a few feet further down. He placed Marshal near the middle, and Titus close to the top. All four were staggered on opposite sides of the tree.
Balaes bent down and wrapped his huge arms around the tree trunk. “Use your knees, not your back,” he grunted. The other three followed his example. Marshal found that Balaes had placed him in just the right position that his arms wrapped all the way around the trunk. A quick glance at Victor showed it to be the same for him.
All four men groaned as they strained. Marshal gritted his teeth and lifted. He felt like he was lifting the heaviest object he had ever handled in his life. But because of Balaes’s massive strength and the balancing he had arranged with the other three, the tree trunk rose into the air.
“They did it!” Careen exclaimed from the side.
“This way.” Balaes took a step forward. The four men shuffled together, moving the tree bit by bit out of the ruins of the workshop.
And then Marshal’s hands began to shake.
Not now. Not now. He looked back and forth. His breathing accelerated. He had no way to tell the others he was having problems, and the tree still needed to move another dozen feet or more.
Another step. The shaking spread up into his forearms. He would not be able to hold on much longer.
Victor noticed his discomfort. Or maybe the Bonding alerted him. “Marshal? What’s going on?”
He couldn’t answer. He struggled to maintain his grip on the tree, but he couldn’t do it.
“Don’t you let go!” Victor shouted. “I can’t hold the center alone!”
“What’s going on?” Titus asked.
Balaes turned his head to see.
Marshal looked at Victor’s face, pleading in his eyes.
“No!” Victor said. “Don’t–”
Marshal’s arms vibrated apart and he staggered several steps backward, releasing the tree.
“Arrrghh!” Victor’s neck bulged as he strained, but it was futile. Without Marshal, the tree was unbalanced, and the remaining three men’s strength could not handle it.
As the weight shifted, Balaes and Victor let go and scrambled back. Titus attempted to do the same, but did not succeed. The tree trunk rotated as it fell, catching him by surprise. He backpedaled and fell. The trunk came down on his right leg.
Marshal collapsed in the snow, his arms still shaking. Behind him, Titus screamed. Racing footsteps and cries of dismay surrounded him.
“Get it off him!”
Aelia, the town’s only healer, grabbed Titus’s hand as Balaes and Victor lifted the trunk off him. “Oh, this is bad,” she whispered. Titus shifted from screams to loud moans.
Marshal felt the shaking subsiding. He stumbled while standing again, then turned to see the others.
A powerful blow struck his face and sent him sprawling back into the snow. Balaes stood over him, his face twisted and jaw set. “What is wrong with you?” he shouted.
“Balaes! No! He can’t help it!” Aelia said. “Help me here! I need you!”
The blacksmith scowled down at Marshal and turned back. Aelia instructed him on holding Titus while Careen and her younger sister ran for supplies.
Marshal climbed back to his feet. His eyes darted from the frightened looks of the girls to the accusatory glare from Victor. He took a step closer and looked down at Titus. Even from here, Marshal could see that the leg was shattered. Even with Aelia’s skill, it might never heal straight.
As he often did, Marshal struggled with conflicting thoughts. Unable to discuss these feelings with anyone, he could never quite resolve them. Looking at Titus, he felt both sadness and pleasure. Part of him mourned harm being done to anyone. But another part of him celebrated the injury of his tormentor.
“You did this!” Titus’s voice was ragged. He stared right at Marshal. “You did this!”
“He’s right,” Victor said. The girls murmured.
“I hope that monster gets you!” Titus shouted. “I hope it eats you alive!”