The Iron Palace:Shadowed Path 03

By: Morgan Howell

These things crack a stone—

iron, frost, and love.

—Averen proverb





ONE


THE NIGHT roared with the sound of rain. Its damp chill flowed from the hut’s unglazed windows and drove the old peasant and his wife to huddle by their hearth. There they shivered despite the fire. Then, mingled with the noise of falling water came the jangle of distant bells. They rang out in an uneven cadence. Jang! … Jang! … Jang! Jang! … Jang! The elderly pair glanced at each other uneasily.

“Karm preserve us!” said the woman. “A cursed one!”

“Mayhap ’twill pass us by,” said her husband.

“Pray Karm it does,” replied his wife. She arched her thumb in the Sign of the Balance. But as the couple listened, the bells sounded ever closer.

“Don’t just sit there!” barked the man. “Get an offerin’. Mind ye, nothin’ fine.”

The man’s wife rushed to a basket and hastily rummaged through it until she found three moldy roots. Then she hurried back to her husband and pressed them in his hand. “Ye do it, Toby. I’m afeared.”

Grabbing the roots, the man opened the door and peered out into the rainy dark. Firelight spilled from the open door to tint the nearest raindrops red, but it illuminated little else. As the man stared into shadows and water, his ears told him more than his eyes. Cursed ones carried a belled staff to warn folk of their approach. Toby could hear the bells, but he couldn’t see who jangled them; all he knew was that the wretch who bore them was coming closer. “I’ve food fer ye,” he called out. “Show yerself, and I’ll toss it yer way. Then pass us by.”

There was no reply, only the sound of bells.

Mayhap its tongue’s gone, thought the man. He’d heard tales of a cursed one whose entire face had rotted away. The peasant shuddered at the thought of it as he strained to see some movement. The bells sounded close before Toby finally viewed a dark figure staggering like a drunk across the rain-soaked field. It seemed more a phantom than a person, for Toby saw no face, only a pale orb with dark spots for eyes.

“I’ve roots fer ye,” Toby cried. The figure kept advancing. When it was twenty paces away, Toby saw the face was wrapped in bandages with two eyeholes that likened to sockets in a skull. Toby tossed the roots at the advancing stranger. When they splashed on the wet ground, he slammed the door.

Jang! … Jang! … Jang! The bells sounded louder.

“ ’Tis supposed to go away,” said the woman. “Go away!” she shouted at the closed door. “We’ve fed ye, now leave us be.”

The bells rang a few more times, then stopped. For a spell, the silence was a relief, but it quickly turned ominous. The pair listened for some sound that indicated the visitor was retreating. All they heard was falling rain. At last, the woman spoke. “Do ye think ’tis still here?”

“I don’t know.”

“Better look.”

Toby walked hesitantly to the door, opened it a crack, and peered out. A sodden form lay motionless on the ground. A hand wrapped in filthy bandages still gripped a belled staff. The derelict was dressed in layers of rags and so wrapped with bandages that it was impossible to tell if a man or a woman had collapsed in the mud. “ ’Tis here,” Toby called back to his wife. “Mayhap ’tis dead.”

“Oh nay!” exclaimed the women. “If ’tis dead, then the curse will pass to us!” She grabbed a broom, opened the door wider, and prodded the still figure with the broom handle. “ ’Tis alive yet!”

“Pah, woman. ’Twas yer proddin’ that made it move.”

Then the couple heard a soft moan. “Get the wheelbarrow,” said the wife. “It hasn’t died yet. Ye can take it to the hermit.”

“But that means I’ll have to touch it!”

“Do ye want yer fingers and toes to rot off?” asked the woman. “ ’Cause ’twill happen if the curse passes to us.”

The man said nothing, but he threw on his cloak and exited the hut, giving the prone figure a wide berth as he did so. Soon he returned with a rickety, wooden wheelbarrow. “Ye’ll have to help me lift the wretch,” he said.

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