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Written by Daniel Stacey
(aka Mage of Adanos)

The clothes of "normal" people on Argaan.

Belgor was dead.

His body lay on the floor of number three, arms wrapping his chest like bandages. I stood over him, mute and motionless, trying not to stare. But his twisted, disbelieving face held me in a brace of guilty fascination. It had happened again. Another had got too close.

Why?

The innkeepers gruff voice failed to mask her anger. I kept my back to the doorway and the woman standing in it.

Why?

Her near-howl caught me, as if shed gripped me herself. I turned. Sharp, reddened eyes bored into mine, as lines deepened across her forehead beneath graying, knitted hair.

Im sorry.

Not good enough! Murdra rushed forwards. Her thick hands seized my collar and jerked me aside with impressive force. I stumbled back, footing lost, head slamming against the wall. The Murdra-shaped bulk loomed over me... It grew blurry, and the sparse candlelight in my room gave way to darkness.

* * *

TWO WEEKS AGO

The splintered sign above the door creaked on its rusted hinges, threatening to fall on my head if I didnt move. Id been standing in the same, boggy spot for Innos knew how long; in the meantime, the trees shadows had reached the top of the gate. My left hand strayed into the pocket of my boar-hide jacket, fingering my fathers pipe.

The Cleaved Maiden. Hardly inviting, but I didnt care anymore. My feet ached, my stomach hadnt silenced since yesterdays dawn, and my arms at least theyd almost stopped throbbing.

Rowing hadnt agreed with me. After an hour that felt like three, my little boat had reached Arganns shore in the pre-dawn light, where it had retired or rather impaled itself on a piece of protruding driftwood. Father would not have been pleased, were he only

I shook myself and slapped my cheek dry. Not again. Enough time had been spent in that miserable expanse which wedged the distant mainland from its isles. Let him be. It didnt have to be their lives or mine. I could risk it.

The door gave to my push, opening to a foyer through which I passed to an unfilled, table-filled tap room. It spun as the smothering stench of beer caused my already shaking knees to buckle. I steadied myself, turning to face the eyes I could feel watching me from the bar. Whether Mother had intended for her son to escape his inherited blight through drink, I was sure she could not have looked less like the broad, thick-fisted figure glaring at me from behind the counter.

Planting large hands on well-hidden hips, it said, Were closed.

But the door

Was closed. The broad woman moved with deliberate stiffness, rounding the bar to block my entrance: an impassable, stubborn sentry. Narrow eyes shone from her round but strong face. You deaf or

Whos that? A mans voice. Followed by a thunk... thunk thunk. At first I mistook it for knocking, until I saw the wooden leg. It was attached to a stout figure which emerged from the darkened end of the room. He stopped a few paces behind the woman, one hand on his bad leg, the other holding a well-drained glass. We opening early, Murdra?

Would it matter to you? the woman answered with mock-malice, not bothering to turn. The man just grinned, stretching red-tinted cheeks. Never mind my husband, Belgor. What do you want?

I sucked in a breath. My name is Ped. I come from Myrtana not three days ago. I have no food, no coin, but I

Want a job? Murdra squinted. Suppose youll say you can work as well as the next man. Cept youre not one, are ya?

It took all my effort not to scream. Blink and I will be.

Murdra grunted. It suited her. How do I know you wont nick off with half the cutlery?

I shrugged. Can anyone around here use them?

Belgor spat out a laugh, like a sneeze cut short. I like this one. Besides, we need someone to replace young

I know. Murdra sniffed, puffing her face and chest out further. She made a show of letting it out. Ped, was it? I dont go offerin jobs to strangers, but Ive never turned away a famished farmer - if Ive judged those rags of yours right.

Youre a generous woman, said her husband, smirking. Knew I married you for a reason.

Murdra half-turned, brow raised. Be the death of me, it will. Or you, if I had to pick. She looked back to me. You can have one of our rooms tonight. Suppers in an hour. Miss it, and you stay hungry. Well see about the job tomorrow.

Thanking them, I made my way up the stairs and along the balcony to find a jagged three etched into one of the doors. I fought back a shiver and let myself into the common room, finding an unused, straw-stuffed bed with a crate nightstand. The latter held a candle and clay wash basin of dirty water. A large crack ran up the bedside wall, spreading like the bare branches of a wintered tree.

A second glance at the bed, and the next thing I knew I was answering Murdras summons. I ate supper downstairs in silence, ignored the gathering patrons attempts at conversation, and returned to bed as the nights coarse commotion began.

I slept through it all.

* * *

Three.

I woke early, startled, rug clinging to my damp, naked form. Id never dreamt of a number before. I was no mage, unlike my late mother, but its meaning was clear enough. Eras my father who would be third? Who else would get too close?

My fist thumped the mattress. No one. That was the point of leaving; of coming here. To deny the Gods their dues. I sat up, frowning. And yet if Id wanted to play protector, why wasnt I bobbing among the sea grass beside my father, food for fanged fish?

I pulled on my farm clothes, padded downstairs, sought a path through the taverns post-storm floor of smashed glasses and tipped furniture, and let myself out in silence. The new sun poured a gentle warmth over me as I crossed the yard. Belgor was standing in a disused stable, now an open tool shed of sorts, wooden leg perched on an upturned bucket while he hammered a strip of twisted metal into service.

He noticed me and nodded. You mustve slept well, what with all the noise. Speaking of which, what do you think of my missus?

I opened my mouth to answer. Sense told me to close it.

Belgor chuckled. Dont blame you. Shes not bad. Good might be stretching it, but still... He dropped the hammer and held up the strip, inspecting it in the morning light. Twenty years next week, is us. Murdra thinks Ive forgotten again. Dont want to disappoint her.

What happened to your leg?

Hmmm? Oh, that. Just a shadowbeast. Brought im down while saving the King, as you do. I put in a good word for you, by the way.

Thanks. Um, why?

Belgor swung his wooden leg down and shuffled around to face me. Get to be as old as me, you start noticing things. Like eyes that say what tongues wont. He cocked his head to the side. Youve been through a lot, I reckon. Seen death. My hand found my jacket pocket and the pipe still inside. I clutched it. All father had on him when he

Maybe more than seen it, he added.

I backed away, but Belgor raised a hand. I wont tell anyone. At least, no one else.

A coldness clamped my cheeks as I halted. Murdra?

Belgor flicked a grin. Like I said, twenty years. Jobs yours. Open-mouthed, I felt my hand extend. He waved it away. Thank me later say, after your first pay.

* * *

TWO WEEKS LATER

The mug hurtled past my ear, fanning beer as it smashed against the wall above the bar. Murdra had ducked in time, and now stood hair dripping with a bared-tooth menace that could have ground a pack of goblins. The taverns regulars hushed.

You! boomed the innkeeper. Even without looking, I knew she meant me. Throw him out!

Sighing, I looked over to the sleeveless, vested man flexing his trunk-like arms as he gripped the table. My target glared back with dark, twin beads which suited his shaved head and ear to chin scar. From the corner of my eye, Murdra squinted at me. No help there.

All sense of gender shrunk as I approached him. You, uh, need to go now.

The bulky beer-thrower studied me for all of a second. Not that he had much to take in. Or? He stood. Two heads higher. Three. I swallowed. He peered down at me, as if pondering how best to bottle this new irritant.

M-Murdra I tried, voice reaching for the stars.

The man laughed, as did a few nearby who had forgotten their senses. You take orders from a woman? What kind of a man are you? The truth snagged my tongue, prompting a chipped grin from the brute. Not yet, hmm? We can fix that. Before I could gasp, I was off my feet and swaying above his head. Lets see if he clears the doorway!

Thunk.

Put him down!

The voice, though deep and forceful, sounded hollow. The ceiling did a quarter turn anti-clockwise.

Thunkthunk thunk.

The tavern was silent. Again, it spoke: I wont say it twice, Garv.

My stomach was the last to land as my feet touched the floor. I staggered back.

The Kings favourite, no less! said the master patron with the waistline to match. I have no quarrel with you, Belgor. Just with your beer, your service, and this whole stinkin tavern.

My rescuer step-thunked forward. Though shorter by far, he held himself tall, grinning through a face that had sunken and sallowed in recent days.

In that case, you are free to go.

Around us, a few of Garvs friends stood, along with some game woodcutters. I sucked in a mouthful of putrid air. A world away, Murdras wet rag slapped the sideboard. Her heavy footsteps followed her into the tap room.

Why arent you letting Ped deal with this lump? That was out agreement. He pulls his weight or

e gets thrown out, said Belgor. But whats the boy supposed to do against Garv?

Bah! Murdra shoved her hands on her hips and raised her brow at the standing colossus. ow about it? Want to try tossin me?

For a moment, it looked as if Garv was considering it. Then he shrugged. A pox on it. Who cares about the swill of this place, anyway? He ducked the entrance as he left, followed by three of his faithful. The tavern returned to normal. Except for me.

Murdras eyes dug like twin pickaxes. My cheeks burned. The moment her gaze averted, I ripped off my apron and sprinted upstairs. Time slipped by as I sat on my bed, head bowed. Something shuffled nearby. No, thunked. How long had Belgor been standing at the common room door, watching me?

Ive seen our boys treated worse. He took a step inside, while I kept my gaze fixed on the pipe next to the crates wash basin. Your fathers, right? Murdra and I, we never had children. So Im not too good at He coughed. Anyway, it gets easier.

I looked up, in time to catch him wincing as he snatched a hand from his chest. Youre not throwing me out?

Belgor smiled, strain lingering on his thin lips. Not unless you want us to. Wed Id like you to stay.

My body numbed. In moments, I was skipping every other stair as I bolted for the tap rooms entrance. My promise to Father howled in my ears. He would be the last. Mothers curse would not claim a third.

Halfway to the yards gate, I hesitated. Shivering fingers checked my pockets. Empty.

My heart thumped out seventeen desperate beats as I raced back through the tap room, up the stairs and along the balcony. Had Murdra seen me? I didnt care. Throwing myself through the still-open doorway of number three, I stopped and stared. The room seemed to twist and spiral around a point on the floor. Fathers wretched pipe lay there, dripping, by the tipped wash basin. Next to it...

I didnt need to check the body. Somehow I knew.

Belgor was dead.

* * *

The pounding in my head was nothing next to the realization that I had not dreamt the last few hours. Belgors body was covered with the blanket from my bed, while Murdra sat on the end of it, watching her husbands form as if it might signal what should be done with it further.

Twenty years we were married, she said, her voice toneless. In the very room you wandered into two weeks ago. Fool never could remember the date, but Ill not forget his proposal: Youll do. Wed him the next day. She let out a long breath, while I struggled to take in the next. You talk a lot for someone out cold. The innkeeper half-glanced at me, then looked away. Your mothers curse killed my husband?

My words were croaky, weak. She wasnt meant to be a mage. The Gods were angry.

Still are, it seems. It felt a long time before Murdra spoke again. You should go. I rose, my smallest movements trembling in reverence. She saw none of it. Dont forget your pipe.

The air outside had lost some of its chill, but my legs offered resistance as I stared ahead to the open gate and the wooded world beyond. I wanted to wipe my face, but there was nothing there. Belgor was right. It got easier. And there was always the next inn.

Looking up, I sent a silent prayer to the fading stars. Sorry, father. Damn you, mother.

I walked on.


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