Because I follow Alistair, it’s always raining. Getting used to it has taken some adjustment, but I’ve learned where to camp to keep away from pooling rainwater, and the best way to dig quick irrigation channels away from my tent when needed.
He’s gotten further ahead of me of late, since I detoured to visit a town he bypassed. Normally he lingers at every civilised stop, but not this one. I needed supplies, and I never need to worry about losing a trail that can be read in the sky. I go where the rain goes.
Not much coin left. Even accounting for supply stops I’ve been dragging behind. Staying in the rain, letting it keep me soaked. I can’t do that anymore.
The next town. Alistair is bound to stop and unfurl his tent. Just like he did in the famine-choked valley I had called home.
Maybe then I’ll have the courage to kill him.
This town, calling itself Rikstead, is spread wide along a cresting slope that overlooks swamps and marshlands – even on a hill half a day’s walk away I can feel the stink rising from those still bodies of water. I’m ahead of the heaviest rain for once, which means I’m right on top of Alistair, and this settlement is still dry. But the longer Alistair stays here, the more likely those rancid marshlands will overflow.
I quicken my pace, one arm up to shelter my eyes from the smattering rainfall. I’ve had brief periods out from the rain, when I’ve made detours or just skirted wide of the trail to get a little blessed sunshine and dry out my clothes. But I’ve made good pace lately. I can shed my outer fur layer. So many layers of clothes, to soak up the drench. I peel them off and leave them behind, one by one, even the moss-lined boots, until I’m wincing on the warm rocky ground in nothing but trousers. The only belongings I hang on to are in a small hessian bag that keeps knocking against my knees.
‘Well, all the characters are coming round today,’ says one old lady as I finally make it to Rikstead. A fair few people around, mostly staring at me. I remember too late I’ve got no coin left to pay for new clothes. No point going back for the old rags and furs. I won’t need them anymore. I plead like a beggar in front of a rusty old tavern for an hour until I get a shirt and boots with more holes than I have toes, but at least by then I feel dry. The shirt scratches against my skin. I have rashes from the damp, so I’ll probably turn red and scaly from the dry as well.
‘You here with the merchant?’ the same old lady asks me. She’s been watching my begging with amusement.
‘Yeah,’ I manage. ‘He just out of town?’
‘Down nearer the marshes.’ She peers up, staring at the black clouds that mark Alistair’s path here. ‘Don’t suppose you’d care to tell him higher ground might be a better idea.’
‘I think he’d know. Thanks.’
‘Thank me by giving my daughter a good deal,’ she calls out after me as I head off. Her name’s Zara, you tell him that!’
I get a lot of strange looks heading through Rikstead. The ground here is relatively lush – they look like they didn’t need the rain that’s coming. Heading past the last property fences I see Alistair’s large tent. His small wagon of wares would be sheltered inside that small mountain of canvas and tanned animal skins, and the two donkeys that pulled the lot are grazing closer to the swamps.
A lot of people mill outside, waiting for the strange little man with the interesting trinkets to come out and start spruiking. Too many people. I’m set in my purpose, but that doesn’t mean I want a crowd to watch the deed. So I drift around the growing cluster of locals, and wait with them. There’s rustling inside the patchwork tent, repaired and restitched so many times that there may be nothing left of the original fabric.
Alistair comes out. Dressed in a loose shirt almost like a smock, with open-toe shoes and a wide-brim hat. I haven’t been able to decide if he’s dressed for warm weather or choosing loose clothes to allow rainwater to flow out from his sleeves and shoes. He beams at the crowd, his skin flaking and his lips cracked, tipping up the brim of his hat as he spreads his arms wide, an act of a welcoming embrace. ‘So good to see you all. I think I may have something for each of you. Care to find out what that is?’
He’s jovial, sociable. The crowd sidles forward – he hasn’t quite won over the locals yet, but they’re willing to entertain him. I hop to the side, and Alistair’s head jerks my way. The arms drop slowly, and he doesn’t turn away. The smile becomes rigid.
That’s all I want for now. He remembers me.
I walk away, not sure if I’ll find a bed or even get any sleep in the night to come. Maybe I’ll just get rid of the scratchy shirt and stretch out somewhere, happy to be dry for a while.
It’s early morning, and the rain is nearly on us in earnest. At the high ground Alistair and I came from, the clouds have melded with the fog of the rainfall and the tops of the trees along the upper slopes. It looks like the clouds are sweating themselves from the trees rather than creeping along the sky, sniffing us out.
I shiver from the morning chill and retrieve my shirt from a bundle next to me. A few more townspeople took pity on me dozing on a slope a little uphill from Rikstead and left me things – one or two of them I recognise as being bought from Alistair’s stock. One is a small wooden carving from the northern coast. It’s supposed to be a charm, something to ward off evil. Alistair told me about them.
The tent is still there, sitting alone save for a couple of people near the entrance and the donkeys standing side by side at the back. Rikstead won’t entertain Alistair’s presence for much longer – it’s a decent sized town but not one suited for an exotic merchant. Most of them look to have brought old items or bushels of crops to barter instead of coin.
I reach the tent just as a young woman exits. She looks at me, takes a moment to register the unfamiliar face, and smirks. ‘I don’t think you got me the good barter my mother asked for.’
It takes me a moment to understand. ‘Oh. You must be Zara.’
She shows me another one of the wood charms. It’s a carving of a crying imp, the tears ragged and jutting out like boils on the creature’s grotesque face. It’s too small to be one of the proper ones. That gives me some relief. ‘Think this will work?’ she asks.
‘I’m sure it’ll be of comfort.’
‘Well, that’s a nice way to tell me I wasted my money.’
I can’t help a little laugh. ‘Did you expect it to work when you bought it?’
‘I guess not.’ She looks to the sky. ‘Guess I’d better get back. Weather’s going to turn real soon.’
‘You’re right about that.’
Zara pockets the imp carving and leaves, taking long strides towards Rikstead. She has that local kind of pride, the confident gait that tells anyone watching that this is her land and her home. It just makes me think how far from home I’ve been taken – and maybe that I could have dealt with this much earlier.
No more stalling now. The wind catches the tent flap. I expect to be able to see inside but the tent is dark past the opening. A small flicker of flame and smoke blinks in, then out – a pipe. Alistair’s sitting in the dark, waiting for me.
I step in, and the familiar incense ripples over me. A faint trace of orange peel fragrance in the smoke. Small slits of light where the patchwork stitching is wearing thin. And the flicker of light again, from atop the wagon scaffolding that acts as the base of a support strut for the large tent. If there were candles or oil lanterns lit, they’ve been extinguished. Alistair is there in the darkness, waiting for me.
‘Why camp so close to the marshes?’ I ask. ‘Planning to pack up soon?’
‘Easier than lugging everything up the slope. And I always depart quickly now,’ he says. Smoke drifts past the slats of light shining through the tent gaps. ‘Two nights at most, no exceptions.’
‘A nice rule to have,’ I say.
He hears the accusation in my tone and breaths heavily. ‘Quinn, I’ve already–’
‘I don’t want to hear it,’ I say. ‘Not when you still sell copies of them. So what have you learned? What are you sorry for?’
Alistair loses his temper there. He rises and throws something at my feet; another carved figure, but larger than Zara’s replica. The black eyes like someone had burned the pupils out. The grotesque open mouth, as if it were frozen in the middle of a curse. There are still blood-red lines along its arms and cheeks, as fresh as the day they first appeared on the otherwise colourless surface. ‘That’s one. You received the second. Only one left, the rest are harmless. I mourn for you, Quinn, but watch your words all the same.’
I leap forward, clinging to the front of the wagon. He’s not ready for me. I have a weapon, a small fruit paring knife strapped to my belt, but my hands go for his throat, and he’s too slow to bat my arms aside. I grab and squeeze, and he strikes at my face first with a limp fist, then with his pipe. It snaps and a splinter of wood slashes across my cheek. Before he can stab something vital with that stick of broken pipe-wood I throw him aside. He hits the wagon frame hard, and I hope for a moment he’s cracked his head and I can say the deed is done. But he starts getting up, so I throw my weight upon him.
The wagon tips – something in its frame couldn’t deal with our collisions and shifting weight. There’s a crunch and the tent canvas dips. I still struggle with Alistair, even as we hear shouts from outside the tent – the collapsing tent has drawn some attention.
Someone runs in, but I don’t notice until the figure is trying to separate me from the merchant. Between the local interloper and Alistair I’ve been pinned to the collapsed wagon, and I’m scrabbling for something to use as a weapon. I find a shard of the broken pipe, and it feels like I catch someone’s jawline in a quick stab. A yell, sounds like a woman’s, and the figure draws back.
There’s a flash of light when someone else cuts through the tent and stumbles past a netted bundle of Alistair’s junk to reach us, pulling me off the merchant before I can find his throat again. I feel blood pouring from the deep gash across my cheek; I can’t be sure I gave him anything in return other than a sore throat.
‘Let go of me!’ I yell, but two Rikstead folk hold me tight.
It’s another moment before Alistair struggles out of the partially collapsed tent. He looks unhurt except for the bruises on his neck, but his expression is one of despair. ‘The wagon,’ he mutters, just loud enough for me to hear. ‘Broken axle. I need it fixed as soon as able.’
‘Maybe we can get it done by tonight,’ one local says, although he looks at the mess that was once Alistair’s tent and trading outpost and shakes his head. It would take time just to clear out all the canvas and junk surrounding the wagon, let alone replacing whatever needs to be fixed.
I feel a fat drop of water on my cheek, stinging my wound. The rain is finally getting heavier.
It’s a steady downpour by the time the tent canvas and Alistair’s wares are bundled away from the wagon – they try to keep some of the canvas up as a protective blanket, but everything’s soaked by this stage anyway.
I watch from the slope, struggling with indecision. I won’t do anything to help Alistair but if he doesn’t move on from this place soon, he’ll pose a threat to Rikstead despite being slightly uphill from the swamps. The man brings rain. If he stays long enough, he also brings floods.
A woman comes up the rise to join me. It’s Zara, the one from the morning. She has a gash on her jawline, near the earlobe, so she was also the first to try to separate Alistair and me. ‘Sorry about the wound,’ I say as she reaches me, ‘that was from me.’
‘Doesn’t hurt,’ she says. She stands next to me, but it’s not a friendly companionship. Some of the locals have looked at me while working on clearing the wagon from the debris, talking to each other while hunched over as if hiding secret phrases. I’m an outsider who attached a seemingly innocent merchant; of course I’m not welcome around here at the moment. Another reason to avoid putting myself in the mix below.
‘Maybe I should thank you,’ she continues. ‘You got me a discount after all, if by a mistake.’
‘When I tried to pull you two apart, I spilled my knapsack.’ She fumbled in her cloth pouch. ‘After we cleared the canvas I gathered everything where it fell, but couldn’t find the little carved figure I showed you. So I just grabbed the closest within reach. Turns out it’s bigger. So I got a large figure for the price of a small one.’
She grins as she shows me the new figure. Big enough to allow more detail in the carving. The same kind of impish figure, with a large gaping maw full of fangs. Instead of crying, this one is glaring with righteous fury, and holding a small staff decorated with bones. It looks poised to deliver judgement on someone.
‘Take that back to him,’ I say. ‘It’s trouble.’
She looks at me with amusement. ‘I thought they would just be of comfort.’
‘Not that one. It’s cursed.’
Zara stares a while longer. ‘Who are you, anyway? You’re not travelling with the merchant but you know him. Dissatisfied customer?’
‘Something like that.’
‘Well, tell. My arms and legs are killing me. A story goes well with a rest.’
I look up, squinting. The downpour’s only going to get worse. ‘Sure, I’ll tell you.’
So I tell her about Alistair’s visit to my valley. About the time we spent together after I brought my wife and daughter to buy some exotic trinkets. I stayed behind to drink with Alistair – we took well with each other. He told me stories of his homeland, always marked with drought and famine, and how he’d always sought a lifestyle to escape from that. I was fascinated with the wood carvings and foreign charms he’d brought, and buoyed by my enthusiasm, he showed me some more obscure curios rarely taken out from the wagon.
‘Not the sort of thing for every hamlet stopover,’ Alistair had said of a small box containing three carved idols. He spoke about the magic these three wooden objects held, but the exact details were mixed between different stories from their land of origin. Some said they warded evil, others said they were prisons for curses once placed on the unfortunate.
I’d confessed that I didn’t have the gold for the idols, but I was a betting man. We played dice games while continuing to drink. I ended up winning one idol. Alistair, by now very drunk and hungry for friendship, demanded we raise the stakes – whoever lost the next roll would have to try out a ritual from one of the stories on an idol. I won and he happily conducted the rite, dripping blood from a small slit on his hand into the gaping maw of his tear-covered idol. The drops of blood upon its mouth soaked into the wood, and the red lines appeared on its carved body. We were both taken aback at this, and Alistair looked worried at first, but he still slurred, ‘Worth it for the company,’ as I stumbled out with my non-marked prize in tow.
Then the rain came. It was unusual, but neither Alistair nor myself connected it to curses. Our valley took in water gradually, and we were unconcerned at first. But the clouds refused to break. The grass peeled away as we ran to and fro once our river’s banks were inundated. Mud was everywhere, under our feet and being carried in by more water pooling in the highlands and gushing down. Alistair stayed to help erect barriers and transport the old and infirm as the floodwaters started to rise. And somewhere in the clamour, my wife and daughter were separated from me. I only learned later that there was a landslide, and my family were among those ensnared in the rush of mud and floodwater.
Alistair offered his condolences, and left once we were all on higher ground. The rain left with him. Curious, I followed, having little to tie me to my home. Always, the storm followed the merchant. It was his bet, his curse, his very presence that had drowned my home.
‘So you’re going to kill him?’ Zara offers as I finish speaking. Her expression gives no support or judgement away.
‘Are you sorry you tried to stop me?’
‘How would you punish a murderer?’
‘Around these parts, death is met with death. Keeps things fair,’ she says lightly.
I think for a moment. ‘Will you try to stop me again?’
‘It would’ve been more polite if you kept it from me,’ she says, before heading back down the slope, slipping a little on the mud. I nearly stop her – she still has the idol. But I already have one of those, still in my battered hessian bag. Maybe it’d be safer with her than with me.
The clouds have grown thicker, billowing outward from the epicentre over the ruined wagon where Alistair works furtively to affix the new axle. The rain and stomping boots have mashed the ground into a muddy paste – even if the wagon’s fixed, getting it out of that mire will be a fresh challenge in itself. The marshlands will extend from their boundaries soon.
It’s about dusk by the time the Rikstead locals decide the job’s no longer worth it, and begin to head back to town. The wagon, which looks fully repaired, is nonetheless left to the mud.
Alistair stays behind with two men and Zara. They’re trying to dissuade him from something, arms gesticulating towards Rikstead. They’re probably recommending he take up a room at the inn until the storm passes. Alistair won’t do that. He’ll continue on foot, abandoning his wagon for the sake of taking the storm away from Rikstead.
When he walks off, leaving the two men despondently staring after him, he’s accompanied by Zara. Maybe she’s convinced him to allow her along as a guide.
I’d planned to leave Alistair face-down in the mud, let everyone decide he slipped and choked on the brackish waters. That’s been my one constant endpoint. Instead, I’m hoping Zara acts as I think she will.
When the final labourers leave as well, I take up the pursuit, heading the long way around the hill to stay out of sight. There’s a lot of water pooling along the low ground, so my approach won’t be graceful. They’ll probably see me coming from a while away.
I gain ground on them as they ascend from the ground where Rikstead lies. The grass is still upstanding here, and it seems my steps lighten along the way as I shed some of the layers of mud caked around my old boots. They’ll spot me soon. I move faster. One advantage to not going for my knife in the first scuffle is that no one thought to disarm me when I was restrained. It’s in my hand now, dull but effective enough.
Only a few paces now. They’ve spotted me, but it’s open grassland here – nowhere to run and hide. Alistair knows this; he doesn’t try to run. Zara stands beside him, staring at me. I still don’t know for sure what she’ll do – she knows Alistair carries a curse, but hasn’t exactly expressed support for my solution to the problem.
Then again, she could just have easily have arranged for a more substantial guard for the merchant. Yes. This is how it ends.
‘Is there any way to negotiate?’ Alistair calls out to be heard over the sound of the rain. ‘I’ve left everything behind, after all. Consider it payment for my life?’
I can’t tell him it’s pointless. It feels too cold, too cruel to say it. He knows anyway, and he doesn’t shrink away or try to flee as I advance.
He turns to Zara. ‘If he’s told you our sad little story, I can confirm it’s true. I bring the rain. If I stay too long, I bring the floods as well. A blessing that becomes a curse – I suppose that’s the best way to summarise all the stories about them. Do you want me dead as well?’
She looks uncertain for the first time, and I’m reluctant to give her time to consider. I pick up the pace, nearly upon them both now. Alistair raises his arms as a shield in reflex as I reach him and slash with the knife. It only cuts at his sleeve, and the first strike seems to be the final irritant for him; he lunges, bringing me to the ground and hammering me with rough blows as I try to raise the knife again.
‘Did you keep it?’ he bellows between strikes, again and again. ‘Did you keep it?’ When I finally grunt that I did, he laughs in satisfaction. ‘You kept it! Good, good!’
He’s momentarily stopped hitting me, relaxed his hold on my shoulder. Zara’s approaching, and I don’t know who she intends to help. So I stab Alistair in the gut with the knife. It sinks into his flesh through the light clothes, but it takes more effort than it probably should. I don’t want to hurt Alistair this badly, yet I can see the agony on his face.
‘Blessing and curse,’ he wheezes as he twists my wrist, forcing me to let go of the knife that’s still in his stomach. He pulls the knife out himself and I realise too late I’m at a disadvantage. I try to protect my face with an arm, and a rough line is dragged along my flesh. It stings, but not as bad as I’d feared. My own blood trails down my arm.
Alistair slashes again, but I realise too late it’s a distraction as he cuts at the hessian sack tucked into my belt, hewing the pull-string. It comes apart and among the few things I have left in the world, my idol – my share in the three cursed items – tumbles onto the grass. Alistair slashes one more time and forces my lacerated arm onto the idol just as Zara pulls him away.
I don’t want to look at the idol, and whether it’s taken my blood. I get up and grapple with Alistair, Zara trying to get between us. He’s losing trails of blood from a serious wound and seems resigned to death. In the end, he helps me throw Zara aside, and offers me the knife. I’ve come too far to do anything else; I take his throat, not wanting to linger over it.
Zara rises. I drop the knife, now slick with blood, beside Alistair’s body before stepping back. She grabs the knife and points it at me like an accusing finger. ‘And now I kill you, is that how your little fantasy goes?’
‘You can tell everyone I attacked you as well if it makes you feel better,’ I say. ‘I just want it to be done.’
After a moment, she obliges, driving the blade first into the area of my heart, then my neck when it’s too dull to make it through the bone. It all hurts, unbearably. But even though I have no idea what death should feel like, I’m at least sure that it doesn’t feel any closer. It just hurts, and Zara watches in mute horror as I stay upright. The gashes along my arm have already healed. The larger wounds won’t be far behind. Already knowing what I’ll see, I finally turn pick up my idol. It’s been fed – the red marks are traced all over its body.
If Alistair was right, the gift of the idols are a mixed blessing and curse. So where his curse was the rainwater he had once longed so badly for, mine is immortality.
‘So what do I do now?’ Zara asks, still holding the knife.
‘How would I know?’ I say, looking up at the rain. ‘Bury the third idol. Or feed it if you want. It doesn’t matter to me anymore.’
She hesitates, touching the roughly healed wound on her jaw. It wouldn’t take much to pick the scab and get blood flowing again. Instead she crouches over Alistair, the blood still flowing from his wounds. She takes the third idol from her knapsack and smears Alistair’s blood across its open maw. ‘There,’ she says, ‘fresh blood for the beast. Let it curse a dead man.’ She stands up, holding her idol as the red lines trace across its body. ‘I hope that’s some consolation, at least.’
‘It’ll have to do,’ I say as I look up. The rain slackens, and the sun peeks from a low gap in the clouds.