Robert Allen Lupton
I believed that a curse was just a word until I stumbled into one. Call me stupid, but I didn’t know the horse belonged to a witch. It’s wasn’t really my fault, the horse was just standing outside the inn. The only thing missing was a “Steal Me” sign.
I jumped on the horse, fitted myself into the saddle, and shook the reins. The horse didn’t move. I yelled and kicked. The horse never flinched. I tried to dismount, but my feet were trapped in the stirrups. The reins coiled like snakes, wrapped themselves around my forearms, and pulled me against the horse’s mane.
The witch was young, attractive, angry, and amused. She smirked at me and loaded her purchases into her saddlebags. “My horse hates strange men. Why would you steal a poor widow woman’s horse?”
I mumbled through the horse hair, “Never saw a poor widow woman who owned a horse. I thought the horse was abandoned.”
She thumped my nose and said, “If you lie again, I’ll tighten the ropes.”
The reins clinched and I said, “My feet hurt. I’m tired and I’m broke. My army disbanded and I’m going home.”
“A soldier or a deserter? Can you fight? I need a swordsman.”
“I’m alive, aren’t I? That means I’ve never lost a fight.”
The witch motioned for the reins to loosen, but the stirrups still held my feet. She said, “I’m traveling east. The Brandoo cult killed the adults in my coven and took my little sister, Candace, and her friends. I survived because I wasn’t home. I’m following them. My spells are strong, but I need a swordsman with an iron sword. Help me and I’ll pay you in gold. Refuse and die like the thief you are.”
I pondered the choices. I didn’t want to fight the Brandoo, they’re religious fanatics and fearless warriors, but maybe I wouldn’t have to. Time and patience are strong warriors. If I refused, the witch would kill me now. If I accepted, I might have to fight the Brandoo someday, but maybe not. A lot could happen between now and the day I’d have to draw iron against them. We might not find them. The girls could escape. The witch could die. I asked, “If I say yes, will you remove this spell.”
“I will, but don’t try to run. The devils I’ll summon are faster than you.”
We ate in the inn. She said, “Spells are useless against cold iron. That’s why I need a warrior. Some of my spells require my total attention and a Brandoo with a knife could kill me while I negotiate with demons and devils. I need protection.”
“What’s to keep me from killing you myself?”
She tossed a long thin strap of leather at me. It coiled and slithered up my arm and wrapped itself around my neck. She said, “The leather torque is bound to my heart. If my heart stops, the leather will contract and choke you.”
“What’s to keep me from cutting it with my iron knife?”
“Nothing, but if you do, the pieces will reform around your neck. The cut pieces will be smaller and tighter. How long can you hold your breath?”
“I understand. My name is Tanar. May I know the name of the woman I’ve been volunteered to serve?”
“Maggie. Let’s get started. I ride. You walk.”
We stopped an hour from the inn. Maggie dismounted, disrobed, and cast a scrying spell to find her sister. Her casual nakedness shocked me. Her eyes rolled into their normal position and she said, “The Brandoo party has reached the other side of this forest. They’ve camped at the base of the Maiden’s Breasts. I imagine they’ll rest the night and cross the pass between the mountains in the morning. The snow won’t melt in the high country for another month and they’ll be slow in the pass. If we travel all night, we’ll catch them tomorrow.”
I finished a piece dried venison and washed it down with warm beer. ‘I’m not sure I can walk all night.”
Maggie pointed behind me. “Walking’s not your problem, that bear is.”
I turned around and held my sword in both hands. The black bear was huge. His claws were longer than my knife. He dropped to all fours and roared. I crouched to meet his charge. He cuffed my head and I rolled on the hard ground. I dropped my sword and bounced off a tree.
He scrambled after me. I crawled around the thick trunk. The bear chased me around the trunk. I crawled and recovered my sword. He lumbered toward me and I stabbed him in the nose. It only made him angry. He tore up the bushes and underbrush. He howled when he tasted his own blood.
I didn’t hesitate. I attacked and swung my sword in a figure eight pattern. I caught his left paw with an upswing and took the top from one of his ears on the return. The bear sat on his haunches, mewed like a housecat, turned, and ran.
“Maggie, why didn’t you help me?”
“I wanted to see you fight. If the bear killed you, I’d know you lied. I rather learn now you’re just a thief than find out you can’t fight when it’s too late.”
I cleaned my sword. “Can’t you fly us to the Maiden’s Breasts?”
“I’m a witch. I can fly us, but I can’t fly iron. The horse’s harnesses will fall apart and your sword will be left behind. I can take us to the Brandoo camp, but we’ll arrive without weapons. I don’t believe you can whip fourteen trained warriors with your bare hands. I’ll do the thinking and riding. You do the walking.”
We traveled all night. I stood off a pack of wolves when the moon was high. I killed one and the rest ran. The fire pit was still warm when we arrived at the Brandoo camp. Maggie performed her scrying spell again. I asked, “Do you have to take off your clothing?”
“Yes, I do. What are you, twelve years old? Grow up. Some spells require blood. Some require the spellcaster be as naked as the day they were born. Some require batwings, frog’s tongues, or even butterfly wings. My mother taught me a spell that requires the eyes of a blooded warrior. Be thankful I don’t need to manifest a dragon’s spirit.”
She removed warm skins from her saddlebags. We wrapped our legs and draped the skins over our shoulders. “It’s going to be cold. Move quickly.”
Maggie said, “Unsaddled the horse and leave it untethered. It can feed itself if we don’t come back.”
The footprints were easy to follow above the snowline, but the going was hard. We helped each other through the steep rocky passages. We heard screams and hurried through the snow.
Moments later, we peeked around an ice covered boulder. A pack of snow leopards pinned the Brandoo party against the steep wall of the mountain pass. I counted three leopards and six Brandoo warriors dead on the snow.
The leopards screamed and the men shouted. The young girls pressed against the high rock wall as if wishing and pushing would allow them to vanish into the stone.
The leopards charged and retreated. They prowled from side to side and the Brandoo moved with them. The Brandoo warriors maintained a thin line of defense. They had iron swords and knives and their clothing appeared to be small plates of bronze sewed on deerskin. The plated jerkins were belted and hung below their knees. Their beards and mustaches look black as coal against their sallow skin.
One of the men i overextending himself slashing at a leopard and the beast pounced, killed him, and retreated. The animals ignored the dead. The Brandoo behaved the same. A Brandoo feigned a fall and two leopards leaped toward him. His companions intercepted the two and cut them down.
Maggie asked, “Well, warrior. What’s your plan?”
I never liked battle plans. They never work. In my experience, most battle plans were only a way to get yourself killed. I said, “My plan is to let them kill each other. I’ll think of a plan when only two warriors or two cats are alive. Can’t you witch up something?”
“I hate to agree, but your plan seems wise for now.”
I turned to reply and saw the bear with the cut nose right behind her. “Bear! It’s the bear!”
I pulled my sword and splashed through the soft snow. She waved her arms and screamed, “Stop moving. Put your sword on the ground.”
She vanished. I looked at my sword hand and it was gone. My sword floated in the air. I put it on the ground. We were invisible. The bear heard the battle, rushed around the boulder, and looked for someone to kill.
One Brandoo didn’t fight. He stood in a bearskin cloak and guarded the young girls. When the bear charged, the Brandoo threw off its cloak. It was a female. She was dressed like a temple priestess. She dropped to her knees, waved her arms, and chanted. The bear froze and a warrior slit its throat. A leopard killed the Brandoo before he could free his sword from the bear.
Maggie said, “She’s a sorceress. I can sense her powers. She’s strong. You have to kill her.”
“Can you shield me from her?”
“I can try.”
The last two warriors faced three snow leopards. One man slipped and all three leopards pounced. The other man hurried to help his friend, but the leopards overpowered him. Not a Brandoo warrior remained to protect the priestess and her captives from the leopards.
The leopards took their time approaching the priestess .She cut her own wrist and bled into the snow. She made a bloody snowball and threw it into the battlefield. It rolled and grew larger. It stopped moving, but the blood-soaked slurry flowed to the snowball from all directions. The pink stained snowball grew larger and sprouted arms and legs. It grew to twice my size. Splotches of Brandoo skin, bear hide, and leopard fur dotted its body.
The three leopards hesitated. The snow creature moved toward them and they growled and encircled it. A leopard bit the creature’s ankle and spit out a mouthful of bloody snow. The icy slurry flowed like water and filled the bite.
A snowy fist crashed down on the leopard and snow splattered in all directions. When the snow cleared, the leopard was dead. Fresh snow flowed upward into the creature and reformed its shattered hand. The last two leopards ran. I didn’t blame them, I wanted to run myself.
Maggie shoved me. “Okay, swordsman. Earn your pay. Kill that thing. It’s a magic construct and should be vulnerable to iron. It shouldn’t be able to replace any parts you cut with your sword.”
“You said should and shouldn’t, not is and can’t. What if you’re wrong?”
“Then we’ll die. I’ll duel the priestess with magic while you play with the snowman. Don’t let it kill me.”
Before I could think up a different plan, she shoved me from behind the boulder. I stumbled, caught my balance, and turned to yell at her. She sat cross-legged and her eyes rolled back in her head. Her chants echoed in the cold morning air.
A girl screamed. I pulled my sword and turned. The creature of blood, snow, and fur came toward me. I wanted to run away. I could live with abandoning Maggie, but not the little girls. I shouted and charged. I slid feet first under the snowman and sliced his leg. There was barely any resistance and I took off his foot. He tilted to one side and I chopped off his left arm at the elbow. I congratulated myself on my prowess and stood to make another cut.
Maggie was wrong and right. The snowman didn’t draw fresh snow to regrow the parts I’d cut away. The iron was effective, but the creature shrank in stature and reformed as a smaller image of itself, complete with two arms and feet. The ten foot golem reached for me.
I somersaulted toward it and slashed at both legs. It collapsed on top of me and engulfed me beneath its icy body. There was no air. I hacked and chopped my way out. I took a deep breath and crawled away, but a cold hand grabbed my throat and another caught my wrist. I couldn’t bring my sword into play.
I pulled my knife with my left hand and used it like a scoop to shovel snow out of its body. It shrank and reformed as a smaller creature every few seconds. I couldn’t breathe. I watched the snowy face shrink and reform. It was a race. The monster would either choke me to death or I’d whittle it small enough that I could break the chokehold.
Suddenly, a teenage girl was at my side. She lifted my heavy sword with both hands and sliced away huge gouts of snow with every swing. It was enough. I broke the small snowman’s grip; took the sword from her, and sliced him into smaller and smaller pieces. He was about three inches high when I crushed him with the flat of my blade.
I thanked the young woman. She said, “Call me Candace, but don’t thank me. I wanted to help you. Our lives will be entwined. I know these things. Kill the priestess.”
The priestess sat cross-legged, just like Maggie. The priestess looked normal, but ice and snow crept up Maggie’s body. She was covered from the chest down. Candace shouted, “Kill her now. Maggie will die when the ice covers her face.”
I splashed across the snow, dodged dead leopards and dead Brandoo, and reached the priestess. Her eyes snapped open and she pointed at me. I took off her head with one swing.
Maggie thawed instantly. I asked, “Candace says that her life and mine are entwined. Am I obligated to take care of her forever because I saved her life?”
She hugged her sister and said, “She’ll explain later. Take your gold, you’ve earned it.”
It turned out that Brandoo armor is gold, not bronze. I took a helmet and a jerkin. Enough to last a lifetime.
I escorted Maggie and the girls to their village. I bought a horse and prepared to leave. Maggie’s little sister said, “I’m going with you. We’re going to be married.”
I said, “You’re barely a woman.”
“I see the future. I’ll grow up and we’ll get married.”
I looked to Maggie for help. She lifted her sister, put her behind me on my horse, and said, “Candace has strong powers and she’s relentless. She gets her way. Don’t fight it. I told you never make a witch angry. Make sure you invite me to the wedding.”