The Cursed Village
Sano had thought that the worst case scenario would be to arrive at the village his mother visited and find out that she had already left for home.
The worst case turned out to be that the village itself was no longer there.
The smell of smoke was still so thick that Sano breathed through his mouth. Beneath his feet, the ground was grey with ashes, the grass burned brittle or buried under black debris. He tossed aside a piece of charred wood, and looked about him for the dozenth time. Sano’s eyes were teary from the smoke. Well, mostly from distress, but a little from the smoke too.
Could his mother have been here when the village was destroyed? Had the king’s warrior caught her, and somehow included the entire village in her punishment? Were they all dead?
Sano stepped back, and his foot knocked against something heavy. He turned and found a burnt body on the ground. He yelped, looking away.
Anina bounded over. “What happened?”
Sano just pointed to the ground, his eyes shut tight.
A solemn moment after, Anina spoke. “Oh... this body is all wood. Must have been the Malicious Wind.”
Though that wasn’t any better, Sano opened his eyes and took a second look. Just like Anina had said, the brown patches untouched by the fire were clearly bark.
“Oh, there’s more,” she said with a shaky voice. She pointed at various human-shaped blocks of wood, the majority of them darkened by char and ash. There had to be about half a dozen of them.
“Good Karingal,” Sano whispered. “You said the Wind’s attacks were rare.”
“That’s what I thought too.”
A soft wind blew over them, and Sano shuddered, afraid it might be the Malicious Wind. But no malaise came with it, unlike his experience in the forest. He rubbed his arms, and blinked back the tears from his eyes. He wasn’t sure whether or not he wanted to find a sign of his mother here. His gaze tried to pick out anything that was not black or grey or dull brown, anything at all that might indicate what had happened to her.
“Sano, I don’t think this was a raid,” Anina said. Her voice was raspier than usual. “I haven’t found... well, I haven’t found a body that is not wooden. There’s no spilled blood. There are no broken pots or jars, no discarded weapons, no clothes or broken furniture.”
“You think the people just left?” Sano asked. Had the villagers abandoned and burned their homes?
Sano and Anina walked some more, the crispy debris beneath their feet crackling with each step. When it became evident that there was nothing else they could do there, Anina suggested that they ride back to the second village. “We can ask for news there,” she said. “I’m sure they would know what happened. Some of the villagers from here might even have sought safety there.”
They made their way to the river bank in uneasy silence. The wooden bodies and the skeletal remains of the village chilled Sano, and disappointment made each step heavy. He had thought that he would finally reunite with his mother, and they could both figure out how to fix the trouble he’d gotten himself into. He didn’t know what he would do now.
Sano came upon the bank and stopped short. The spot where they'd left their raft was empty.
“What’s wrong?” Anina called, catching up to him. She followed his stare, and her eyes went wide. “What happened to our raft?” She ran to the very edge of the river and gazed upstream and downstream. She craned her neck and stood on the tips of her toes. “This is the spot where we left it, isn’t it?”
“I’m pretty sure it is.” Sano strode towards Anina, and his feet found soft, loose soil, with long marks gouged from the ground. The pattern clearly indicated that the raft had slipped back into the water.
Anina dug her fingers into her hair, and her face reddened. Sano thought she might shriek, but instead she sunk to the ground and buried her face in her arms.
Sano’s mother had a particular way of organizing things in their hut. They didn’t have a lot of space, so he and his mother had small crates or chests where they stashed their belongings. His mother would put the things they didn’t need very often in the lower containers, and the ones that they used frequently at the top. Sometimes she would store something at the very bottom and forget that she ever had it.
Sano knew that was what he had to do with his feelings. Put the distracting fears away in the back of his mind, and focus on something that could actually help him.
He and Anina had been sitting by the riverbank for a good chunk of the afternoon. The sun was just about to set, but they hadn’t been able to talk at all. Anina lay morosely on the ground with her eyes closed. Perhaps she was taking a nap. A nap didn’t sound so bad, but every puff of wind that carried the scent of smoke down from the village renewed Sano’s worry for his mother.
Realistically, if he had to worry about somebody, it should be himself. There had been a time when Sano’s mother had almost brought the kingdom to its knees. Sure, it had been sixteen years since, but she should still be able to take care of herself. This wasn’t even the first time she’d left the forest after becoming the Hermit Mage. She would be fine.
The main problem now was how to meet her.
Sano turned towards Anina sprawled on the ground. “Well, I think it’s time to take stock of our situation.”
“Fine, fine. I suppose I’ve wallowed in self-pity long enough,” Anina mumbled, opening her eyes and sitting up. She pulled back her hair into a neat ponytail. “Let’s suppose your mother went back home. What do you think she would do if she found your home destroyed?”
“She’d look for me,” Sano said. “She’ll find the backup lair empty, so she’ll venture out into the villages. She’ll follow hearsay.”
Anina nodded. “That means that she’ll search in the villages we’ve already passed. Normally, I would suggest we go back in the hopes of running into her, but we also know the king's warriors would be following the rumours. Lord Matiban said he’ll lead the others southeast, but some warriors might still check the villages along our route. Besides, I don’t know if I trust Lord Matiban.”
“Do you think the king would search for me indefinitely? If we can lay low for a while, perhaps the rumours would go away.”
“I thought about that as well, and it’s not improbable. But the longer we’re apart from your mother, the harder it would be to find her.” Anina patted her travelling pack. “And there’s the issue of money as well. Finding your mother will require money, especially now that we don’t know where she is exactly. We can barter for food and roof with scripts and other services, but that’s a lot slower than just giving out a few metal beads. It also doesn’t get us some things that only money can.”
Sano crossed his arms and stared out at the river. If only there were a way he could contact his mother. Give her some kind of message. But there was nobody who would know them for mother and son, nobody to relay information if they saw her. Not that he could really trust anybody either. Anina had stakes in keeping Sano’s secrets, but what was stopping anybody else from reporting him to the king’s warriors if they suspected him of being the rogue mage?
The memory of the fleeting skirt he’d seen after their conversation with Lord Matiban flashed in Sano’s mind. He shivered.
From upstream, a large boat emerged, heading towards them. A few boats and rafts had passed while he and Anina were convalescing, but nothing quite this grand. Its hull was wide enough to cover almost half of the river’s width, and its long outriggers made it impossible for any other vessel to ride alongside it. It was piled high with crates of varying sizes, and as it drew closer, Sano saw that those were filled with jars and pots of all kinds. There were several pieces of beige earthenware deep enough to conceal a child during a game of hide-and-seek. The rest were smaller: bowl-shaped plant pots decorated with the typical floral patterns found in Gila, fancy cups dyed in bright reds or indigo, clay pitchers, and vases shiny with wax.
Whatever space remained on the boat was occupied by a family: one elderly man with white hair, two women, three younger men, and a few children. Slaves squatted on the outriggers, paddling the heavy boat along. They were shirtless with threadbare loincloths, backs sweaty from the heat of the sun.
As the boat passed, the old man took notice of Sano and Anina. He waved for his slaves to slow the boat and move it closer to the bank – although with those long outriggers, it couldn't get very close.
“Do you need help?” the old man called out in Dayungan. He gave Sano and Anina an appraising look, then shook his head in pity at the smoking village behind them. “I hope neither of you lived there.”
Anina perked up and said to Sano, “Maybe he knows something.” She walked into the shallow side of the river, the water closing over her ankles. “Good evening, sir. Do you know what happened to this village?” she asked back in Dayungan, her voice round and full.
“I've heard some stories about a conflict there,” the man explained. He wasn’t as old as Sano had thought at first. Though his hair was starting to grey, his skin wasn’t wrinkly yet. He must be a rich merchant, judging by his long-sleeved cotton tunic embroidered with gleaming threads. His earlobes sagged under the weight of silver hooped earrings. His family behind him was equally decked in expensive clothes, even the children.
The merchant continued, “Happened about a month or so ago. It was just a silly fight that broke out after several of the villagers got too drunk. Then the Malicious Wind passed by and a dozen people turned to wood.”
“But why is the village burned down?” Anina asked.
“The villagers consider it bad luck to continue living here. I heard that for nearly a month, they were inviting shamans and mages from all over the kingdom to find a cure for the victims, but none could help. Many declared it a lost cause, and warned that this might be an omen, so the villagers decided to burn their homes and flee.” The old merchant shook his head. “I hope you two aren’t related to any of the victims.”
“Do you know what happened to the shamans and mages who visited?” Sano piped up.
“Most likely went home. The last one must be long gone by now, because as you can see, the villagers couldn’t find a solution other than to leave.”
“I see,” Sano said. So King Bunawi had nothing to do with the destruction of the village. That, at least, was comforting news. “Thanks for letting us know.”
“You’re welcome. Good luck to both of you. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must get going. I was supposed to reach Masagan tonight, but at this rate, I’ll be lucky if I get there by the morning after tomorrow.” The merchant gave them a shrug that appeared like he didn’t much care whether he was late or not.
“Masagan...” Anina whispered. She whirled on Sano, eyes bright. “Maybe we can go to Masagan too! It’s a big enough settlement that we won’t be conspicuous at all. And there are lots of jobs to be found in its market, even for people like us. What do you think?”
Sano hardly knew what to say. Until now, Masagan had been a distant setting in his mother's tales, a place that was as much a product of his imagination as it was real. He had only ever dreamed of going there. And surely Anina knew better than him how to earn money.
Sano glanced behind him at the ruined huts. All in all, there really was nothing left they could do here. They wouldn’t even find food, unless they fished. Heading further west to Masagan might put more distance between him and his mother for the time being, but at least they wouldn't be sitting ducks for warriors to find.
“Yes, I think I'm fine with it,” he said.
Anina spun back to the merchant. “Sir!” she called. “Did you say you were going to Masagan?”
“Yes! Good time to set up shop there now. Sea-serpent season is attracting lots of tourists. Plus, my wares tend to be popular, if I do say so myself.” The man blinked at them. “Do you need a ride?”
Anina smiled. “If it doesn’t inconvenience you too much, we would greatly appreciate a lift. We just lost our raft to the currents.” She pulled her fighting staffs from the sling on her back and pointed to the scripts that propelled water. “My companion and I can even help speed things up a little.”
The merchant beamed. “What a wonderful idea!” One of the women behind him nodded eagerly and then grumbled something about the heat.
Sano and Anina waded to the boat, and the merchant helped them aboard. “Good timing too,” he said. “Some of my young chaps look like they need rest. You can trade places with them.”
Sano and Anina tiptoed their way around the crates, jars, and pots. One wrong step seemed like it could tip the entire boat, and send them all into the depths of the river. Anina handed Sano one of her staffs before they sat on the outriggers vacated by the slaves who needed a break.
Together, they found a balanced outpour of magic that gave the boat a boost, but that wouldn’t drain them too quickly of their magic. As the boat drifted away from the village, the mixed scents of wood, clay and dyes replaced the lingering traces of smoke. The burnt frames of the huts receded from view, and a numb calm settled over Sano. This turn of events wasn't ideal, but at least his search wasn't over.