Strong are the bonds of family. In their truest form, these links of loyalty forged through shared blood are impervious to all assaults. Death and misfortune can bring separation, but those who partake of this pact understand that this is not the same thing as defeat. Love transcends the insignificance of geographical distance and even pierces the mysterious veil that separates the land of the living, and the unknown into which all must one day cross.
Jacob's family was well steeped in this truth, allowing it to permeate their daily tasks. He was the eldest of four children belonging to the farming family. For eight years he held the honor of being the only offspring of his parents before trading it in for the title of eldest child at the birth of his younger brother, Robert. Sarah had come along a scant year later as the happy couple continued to build their brood. The turmoil of their homeland would delay the arrival of little Geoffrey for another four years, however.
The nation of Carreas, never a stable place, was being ground more and more fiercely under the heel of its latest tyrant, Duke Mechellos Carras. Things came to a head one November when a debt owed the family generations past finally was paid. A clerk within the nation's capital came across a piece of information on the desk of a superior. Orders were being scribed for the military to ride and raze the town of Bethyl. It was to be made an example of, under the pretense that it was the hometown of a young man who had killed one of Mechellos's advisors.
The civil servant wasted no time in dispatching a letter to Bernard, Jacob's father. The missive was a small piece of paper with simple words scrawled on it:
A fire comes. Leave with all possible haste. By month's end it will be too late. The debt is repaid.
Jacob, only ten at the time, watched as his father bleached white for the brief moment it took to scan the contents of the message. Bernard then leaped into action, running through the house to find his wife. Jacob was unable to hear many of the words at the time, but would later come to understand them as instructions to prepare for a long journey. His mother, Mary, became infected by the same need to rush as she raced about throwing clothes, food, and any other item that could conceivably be carried, into some semblance of travel readiness.
Years later, the son would always think back with pride on his father's actions that day. Where he could have fled at once with relative safety from the oncoming threat, packing his family into a cart and not looking back, he did not. Rather he moved to secure the lives of all the inhabitants of Bethyl. Bernard was the type of man who managed to evoke a sense of trust from those around him. That natural charisma and his kindness had amassed him a sizable group of friends. He gathered as many as he could from their homes and the nearby tavern and lead his small mob to the town square.
There, from the raised platform that housed a podium in times of public decree and gallows in times of public justice, he cried out the news of the town's impending doom. The people stopped to watch him in shock. The town guard, was, like most officials, in the pocket of Mechellos, and arrived not long after to attempt to silence him. The guards were too few to do anything against the amassed townfolk, most having learned of the army due to arrive in as little as two days, and left. The would-be savior of Bethyl continued to shout from his platform, instructing those who would listen.
Bernard worked something of a miracle on that day, and in the space of those forty-eight hours managed to organize an exodus with a chance to survive. The mob seized the mostly empty barracks, the weapons from the armory, and sent the remaining corrupt guards from the town. In a flurry of activity supplies were seized, carts loaded, and horses hitched. At the end of the time remaining to Bethyl, fully half of its citizens had heeded the warning and were rolling northward out of the city's gates.
The last of the carts had left a day earlier, and yet Bernard remained trying to convince even one more soul to flee and live. A day after expected, the first banners of the army were visible on the horizon. Only then did he turn his back on the town and ride after the caravan.
After a day's hard riding he caught up with the caravan. The weariness was evident in his posture as the survivors watched their leader ride by. Only when he reached the front of the column of refugees and found the embrace of Mary did some of it melt away. Tears of relief fell from the eyes of Jacob and his mother at their loved one's safe return. Robert and Sarah both simply beamed to have their father back, too young to comprehend the danger of what had been going on.
The door to the wooden cottage was flung back as the children raced to answer the dinner bell, the two eldest males came in from the fields not far behind. The inseparable duo of Sarah and Robert reached the table in an instant. Jacob and his father stopped to leave their muddy shoes near the doorway, lest they spark Mary's wrath. The woman whom they took caution against angering was in the process of carrying a steaming pot to the center of the rough table, four year old Geoffrey walking along beside her.
Jacob reached the table just as the stew was being ladled into his wooden bowl. A potter had not been among those partaking of the exodus, and in the four years since the establishment of the community, none had yet to take up residence. Several excellent carvers had been among them, however, and as a consequence nearly every vessel in New Bethyl was hewn from the trees. Much like the town itself.
With no way of knowing how far, or even if the Duke of Carreas would pursue them, Bernard had led his people ever northward for nearly a year and finally into the thick forest. After several days travel through the never ending sea of vegetation, he had concluded, finally, that they were as safe as could be expected, short of continuing north another two days or so to legendary Metamor Keep itself. From the mighty forests the Bethlyians had carved a community. If not a thriving one, then it was at least a surviving one.
From the liquid filled with meat and vegetables came an aroma that coerced saliva from Jacob's glands and demanded he satiate his hunger. It was torture and all he could do to restrain himself as his mother finished serving the rest of the family. Finally, she filled her own bowl and seated herself, leaving but one obstacle between his appetite and the delicious meal. Father lead the brief prayer of thanks to Yahshua for the food they were about to eat. The word 'amen' had hardly left his lips before the spoons began to click against the bowls. Mother and father were remarkably tolerant of their children, who, quite frankly, ate like pigs. Not that Bernard conducted himself much better, Mary would often point out in jest.
Small talk floated across the table as everyone allowed their stomachs to settle, afterward. Everyone complimented Mary on the stew, and she received the praise with genuine blush and mock humility. Robert and Sarah informed the family of a turtle they had located; or at least that is what the others believed them to be saying. It was hard to understand when both energetic youths kept trying to tell the story at the same time. Jacob and Bernard gave a report on the crop, which was coming along fine. Mary made known to the family Geoffrey's amazing bravery in the face of a bumblebee today, and the little boy practically glowed under the attention he received.
The group began to break up as Mary collected the dishes and silverware for washing, the breadwinners went to resume their labors, and the terrible two returned to their play, this time with little brother in tow.
The sun hung low in the sky, only a sliver still visible over the treetops that surrounded the town. Bernard wiped some sweat from his brow and gauging the time called out to his son, "Ok, Jacob, that's enough for today. We can finish up tomorrow." The youth looked up from a few rows away where he was working and said, "Ok, Dad." After a few moments he thumped his head with his hand saying, "I left the hoe at the far end of the field. I'll be in as soon as I get it; go on without me." He was already in motion running off into the growing dimness, leaving the older man with nothing more to do than shake his head and chuckle.
The errant tool lay unashamedly at the very edge of the sea of corn, impervious to the glare Jacob bestowed upon it. The miscreant was soon in hand, when across the stillness of the evening air, the faint sound of crying reached him. The sound of suffering is one that wrenches at all good hearts, and the lad was compelled to see what could be done to alleviate it.
A short distance into the forest the darkest sides of humanity were being displayed in all their sickening glory. In a scene almost as old and tragic as time itself, a distraught and weeping maiden was being restrained in front of a young man by a pair of his cohorts. On the cusp of growing up, all involved were probably in their early to mid-teens. The girl appeared to have long since stopped trying to scream through the gag in her mouth, as the only reaction to her bodice being unlaced was an intensified sobbing. As he continued to remove the dress from his intended victim, the twisted youth's lewd grin grew even wider with the promise of the evil to come.
That leering expression wasn't the only thing to shatter when the hoe connected with his jawbone a moment later. He crumpled with a piercing cry of pain that only fed itself as he clutched at his face. The two accomplices released the girl in shock at the attack that had unexpectedly been launched not two feet away from them. One never got the chance to recover as Jacob swung the farming instrument turned weapon into his stomach knocking the wind out of him. The third came to his senses and put some distance between himself and the attacker. Jacob twirled his makeshift staff in his hands and said, "You really don't want to see the rest of what Tully has taught me, do you, Mark?" The boy looked at his two companions writhing with pain on the earth and quickly arrived at the obvious decision. He spat ground in Jacob's direction and then took off running.
The girl was on her knees and weeping into her hands, her dress still undone, when Jacob knelt beside her. He put an arm around her shoulder and simply held her for a while before saying, "Buck up, Emily. You're going to be all right." He kept his gaze averted and his eyes on the would-be rapists, hoping she would take the hint and fix her clothing soon. For long moments there was only the sound of her crying, but finally she choked out between sobs, "Th-thank you," and he knew his words had not rung false, that she would indeed be all right.
"Let's get you home before our families start worrying about us," he told her. He wanted to offer her his handkerchief, but covered with the sweat and dirt of the day's labor, he doubted she would want it. Instead he just offered her a hand up and a shoulder to lean on as he led her through the gloom back to New Bethyl.
Jacob and Emily met his father halfway back to the homestead. Bernard's face flashed with rage at the story, but quickly gave way to the more practical compassion that the girl needed at the moment. He sent his son back home to prevent Mary for worrying, and then escorted the poor lass back to her own dwelling, where he did what he could to smooth over the shock of the ghastly tale.
The next day found the three criminals being inconspicuously dragged in one by one to Bernard's house. Tully, the resident retired warrior, played bailiff to Bernard's judge and the jury of Emily's family. Jacob stood as sole witness, as Emily was to be spared having to be in the same room with the vermin. There was little in the way of trial; this gathering was for the purpose of passing sentence. Jacob's father had discussed the matter with Emily's parents last night, and all agreed that something had to be arranged to protect the girl's reputation. Even though nothing had come of the assault, in a small isolated community rumors would spread quickly, and, more often than not, be believed simply because they were more interesting than the truth.
Bernard stood glaring at the boy sitting in the chair. It was Mark Herae, easily the lowest ranking person in the gang's tri-level totem pole of power. He showed none of the originality of his predecessor in the seat. That one had at least tried an interesting mix of bravado, denials, and excuses. Raw fear was all that Herae offered toward the authority figures arrayed before him.
Bernard paced back and forth in front of the seated youth, not even looking at him. Tully in contrast never seemed to blink as his blue eyes bored into accused. "You know why you are here, Mark," began the town's leader. "The fact that you hold your tongue implies that you have little to say. That is probably for the best, since nothing short of blubbering apologies and repentance would be of any value." The look that passed across Mark's face was of wild-eyed panic. For a moment it appeared he was about to go to his knees there and then and begin the recommended outpouring of regret, but was prevented by the sudden cessation of the patterned walk before him. Bernard put both hands on the arms of the chair, leaned forward over it's terrified occupant, and fixed him with a gaze that put Tully's to shame.
"There is but one thing between you and death, and that is your age. Because you were young and easily mislead, I have decided that you will face exile," he said. The youth blanched even more, if anything and sputtered, "But the lutins will kill me!" Over time, whenever a member of the town vanished in the forest, his death was attributed to the small green menaces, even though far more plausible explanations would have worked just as well. Truth be told, however, the lutin presence south of the Keep was virtually non-existant. Occasionally, a group bent on ambushing a caravan would stumble across the remote community, but Tully had trained enough of the townsfolk in the defense of their home that casualties were few and far between.
These few attacks and the rumors surrounding the rare forest disappearance were enough to instill terror in the cowardly boy, but Bernard appeared to consider it as if significant for a moment before saying, "You'll leave with the first caravan out. Make sure that you lose yourself in one of the cities they stop at. Now get out, and speak to no one about this. I don't need people grumbling that I was soft on you." Some relief washed over Mark's face at the prospect of safety in numbers. In truth, the concession was designed to conceal the exile altogether and thus prevent the unpleasant questions that could lead to Emily's ruin. As the sentenced left, Bernard took up residence in the newly vacated chair. He leaned on his left arm, massaging his forehead as he tried to do away with some of the day's stress. "So, Tully, what's your opinion."
"Well, Ah don't suspect the Herae boy will be a problem. But ta be honest, Ah don't think this whole affair did a wit o' good with the other two." Jacob was inclined to agree with Tully's assessment. Bruno, the gang's leader, had been silent throughout the entirety of the meeting, aside from spitting at the doorway. That action had earned him a cuff from the retired warrior, one that couldn't have felt too good given his jaw. He had sat still as stone, the only motion occurring in his eyes when they swiveled to glare balefully at Jacob. For his part, Jacob had stared solemnly back, never being the first to blink or break eye contact.
Bernard sighed and said, "Yes, I suspect we'll have trouble from Bruno, and wherever he leads, Tom follows. The next caravan leaves with the harvest in a month. We'll just have keep an eye on them and see if we can keep the damage from becoming too great, until then." The unofficial head of New Bethyl knew the pair was stupid, and was afraid that they would brag to Emily's detriment. He suspected they might even try to abuse their impending exile to commit minor crimes with impunity, despite Tully's promise that he'd make sure they paid in pain for anything of that nature. Had Bernard been able to predict the future, however, it's quite possible than he would have executed them on the spot.
With the exception of the constant hate filled glances, it did not seem to Jacob that the pair had been up to any no good beyond what they had done prior to their attempted atrocity. It had been two weeks, and, in fact, they seemed more disciplined than before, which had give some hope that the month would pass uneventfully. Jacob wouldn't have bet on it though, and still made time in his day to periodically check up on Emily. He had taken it upon himself to make sure that nothing happened to her during the month before her three attackers were surreptitiously cast out.
The girl herself appreciated the gesture, and gave him a small smile whenever he stopped by. It was both a heart wrenching and warming thing, for it was good to see the expression reappearing on her face, but it was still far from what it had been.
The reddish glow of the sun bled into the sky over the western treetops as Jacob returned to the field from his last check on Emily of the day. He had left one patch to weed in order to make it to Emily's and back before nightfall. With a relaxed breath as he came out of his jog, he picked up his hoe and began to work. He knew his mother would be both irate and understanding toward him for working late into the twilight. He also knew that she would save him something to eat, as the rest of the family would probably begin and finish dinner without him. He had insisted after the first time he had returned home late to the hunger induced glares of irritation Rob and Sarah had given him.
The rhythm of the tool through the dirt mixed with the early chirp of crickets as a few prepared for the cacophony of noise they and their brethren would make later. The lazy hum from the wings of a few nearby insects and the punctuating hoot of an owl completed the evening symphony and brought a smile to the young man's face.
And then suddenly the crack of a twig followed shortly by the rapid pad of footsteps on grass caused Jacob to snap his head up from his work. He had just enough time to register Tom Beral's face before the running youth collided with him. The two went down in tangle and were soon grappling for the top position and the much needed leverage it offered. Just as Jacob came out on top, a sharp blow sent pain lancing through his head with the force of an armored charger for a brief moment before consciousness left him.
He awoke to find his head was still entertaining the miserable sensation. That was the first thing he noticed. The second was that he was that he was hanging from a pole in motion. He turned his head rapidly as adrenaline helped him shake off the grogginess, and instantly regretted it as his skull protested the movement.
"Hey, Bruno, he's wakin' up," said the voice carrying the pole towards Jacob's feet. The second attempt to assess his situation met with greater success, as he was able to focus on Tom's face. His captor looked expressionlessly back at him.
From beyond his head came a voice in reply, "So? Not like there's anything he can do anyway." If Tom's statement was any indication the words belonged to Bruno, and that meant the situation was bad for Jacob indeed. He suspected that shouting would earn him another blow to head, but he also suspected far worse if he allowed the two to take him to wherever they were going. Opening his mouth he bellowed, "HELP!" at the top of his healthy lungs. He was already halfway through the second yell when Bruno's mocking laughter drifted back to his ears, along with the statement, "Scream all you want, puke. We've been traveling for most of a day, and there ain't anyone to hear you."
Hearing the words and hoping them false, Jacob continued in his cries for salvation. He stopped only when his voice was too strained to go on. The reverberating echo of his last call sounded throughout the autumnal woods and faded, leaving silence; even the branches and dieing leaves hanging still and quiet, paying no heed to his pleas. Still he continued to apply for aid, silently now, and to Eli. If the deity paid more attention to his requests than the silent forest, there was no sign of it.
The day passed into night, and the Tom and Bruno made camp, complete with a fire. Jacob was leaned upright against a tree, far from its warmth. After determining that his bonds were too securely tied for him to escape, his only pastime was to watch the pair eat supper while his own stomach grew emptier by the moment. The two both went to sleep afterward, neither standing watch. Apparently, they neither feared Jacob's escape nor shared their former cohort's fear of lutins. For Jacob, the remainder of the Earth's dark period was spent trying to sleep in his vertical position and ignore the biting pain of the rope around his wrists and ankles.
The captive was woken from his unrewarding slumber by the impact of the ground against his back. Trying to shake off the fuzziness of his miserable condition, he realized that his tormentors had simply tipped the pole over onto the ground so they could carry it between them as they had yesterday. The mind numbing monotony of the voyage was countered by the fear of the almost certain torture followed by death, as well as the agony of the ropes eating through his flesh due to the swinging that occurred with each step, and the aching of his arms and legs caused by the long period of hanging.
Even in the depths of his misery, Jacob detected a certain nervousness in Tom, and even Bruno at times. The lackey asked the latter nervously, and enigmatically to Jacob, if they hadn't gone far enough yet. Each time, the bigger boy would reply, "No." with increasing agitation, until finally he made it clear to Tom not to ask again.
It was during the depths of the afternoon, morning but a memory and evening not yet foreseeable, when the group came to a halt once more. The location did not appear to have any distinguishing characteristic from the rest forest they had been traveling through for the past two days. Jacob was forced to guess that the pair had simply gotten tired of lugging him around and finally felt they'd gone far enough that no one would find his body before the scavengers had finished it. He was partially correct.
Both of the thugs released their half of the burden at once, and again Jacob felt himself impact with the earth. The leaves carpeting the forest floor near his ear rustled as Bruno knelt down beside his head. "No one hits me and gets away with it," he said in a hate filled voice. The point was punctuated by Tom's fist striking his stomach. Despite his best efforts, Jacob doubled up at the pain, or at least as much as the pole would allow. "What's worse, you ruined my fun," he said as Tom's foot landed between the legs of his prisoner. Beyond the waves of pain, Jacob heard him continue, "which is something I am definitely going to fix before I leave."
"I'm gonna leave you out here to starve to death, or be eaten. I hope it's the first. I want it to hurt for a long time." Clearing out a small patch of leaves he sat down two large jugs of water and a loaf of bread. "Wouldn't want it to end too quickly, 'specially not before the Curse has its fun with you." the disgruntled youth said with a sneer.
A new acrid claw of fear gripped Jacob through the still resounding pain of the blows. While he had noticed they were traveling north, he had been too preoccupied with his situation to consider the consequences of that direction. Most people had sneered initially when the news of the magical keep being cursed had first filtered throughout the land three years ago. Gradually, however, the tales from the traders that went there became too numerous to ignore. The thought of being twisted by those horrible magics was almost enough to take his mind off the starvation sure to follow.
A kick to the ribs was the parting message as Bruno left and Tom left, the former laughing all the way, though Jacob suspected some of it was done just to annoy him. For several minutes afterward, he just lay there, waiting for the agony to subside. When it finally left him, he reluctantly only took a few awkward, handless bites from the loaf of bread. It was moldy, but better by far than the gnawing pains of hunger. If he couldn't manage to escape, he was going to need to stretch it as long as possible and hope help would come. He knew he would have been missed for at least a day now. How long would it take his father and Tully to find him?
Well that question would have to be answered later, when and if he could not free himself. Scooting up to one of the water jugs, he tipped it until some of the precious liquid fell onto the bonds at his wrists. Straining as much as he could, he tried to slip his hands free. It was a futile gesture, however, the bonds were both too tight to slide from, and too water resistant to stretch.
An exhaustive search of the area yielded nothing with which to rub through the ropes; even the trees were smooth barked! With a sigh of resignation he lay still, trying to come up with another way to cheat the unspeakable fate intended for him. Nothing came to him, though. The days passed in cramped and starving misery as he slowly rationed out the bread and water. Nights passed in miserable fitful sleep.
By the seventh day the bread was but a memory. Rain had allowed him to refill his jugs, but the liquid did little to ease the aches of his shrunken stomach or keep him warm once the sun went down. He had started eating whatever bugs he could inch up to as he did everything possible to cling to life.
On the eighth day things began to take a marked downward turn. His tongue felt swollen and every bone and muscle in his body seemed to ache. In the midst of such suffering he suspected that the hunger was finally starting to claim him. The ninth morning told him otherwise with the first undeniable sign that it was something in addition to hunger was striking him.
He couldn't open his eyes, the dawn light filtering reddish pink through his eyelids. The muscles that normally would part the flaps of skin simply weren't there. Leaning his head to where his hands were bound, he felt across the surface of his face with a fingertip that suddenly seemed oddly shaped as it came in contact with his skin. Trying not to spare a thought toward the newly changed digit or the odd textures it was reporting to him, he slowly moved it over and around his eye. What his examination revealed was that it was no wonder that he was unable to open his eyes. Each pair of lids that covered them were now seamless and one.
The evidence that the Curse was indeed very real and upon him, raised a brief period of panic, made short only by the fact that his body lacked the strength to sustain it for long. When it fled it seemed to take his will to struggle on with it, and he simply allowed himself to slumber. The coming of twilight and the murmur of voices caused him to stir. He turned his head, trying to better catch the sounds. Though he was unable to discern whether they belonged to fellow humans or a lutin raiding party, he knew he was as good as dead without help anyway. He called out for help in as strong a voice as he could manage. At least, that is what he attempted to do. What issued forth was an odd squeaking series of clicks. That he had been the source of the noise shocked the abused youth into silence, but that one cry had been enough to also shock the beings nearby and draw their attention.
He also heard the clash of steel as one sword beat back another near his head. Immediately following that clamor was Tully's voice harshly berating another, "That's not a lutin you, idiot!" Then there was the rustle of the leaf carpet as someone knelt next to him. He felt the ropes binding his wrists and ankles fall away, slightly preceded by the tug and sound of a knife slicing through them. Tully asked practically whispering, "Jacob, is that you, lad?" It was the gentlest voice the boy had heard the aged warrior use in fifteen years, and that, more than the deformed body parts, more than the fact that someone at swords length had mistaken him for a lutin, told him just how bad a shape he was in.
The homecoming was bittersweet. Tears of joy that Jacob still lived, mixed freely with wails of sadness at the disfiguring curse that was still progressing with each day. Jacob was actually somewhat thankful for the blindness, as it spared him the expressions that surely graced the faces of his loved ones, though the gasps of horror told the tale well enough. He smiled sardonically, wondering how much worse it would have been had he tried to speak. Tully had, thankfully, informed, them of their son/brother's newfound difficulty communicating. Despite Jacob's lack of contribution to the conversation, later, after the emotions had somewhat settled, his father defeated the potential silence by recounting for him the past two weeks from the town's perspective.
When morning had come and the family had found the boy absent and his bed unslept in, they knew something was wrong. A search of the town only confirmed their fears. The trail leading north was quickly picked up once they found abandoned tools at the edge of their field. Tully, and his father had set out immediately, only to be beset by one of the rare groups of lutins that made its way south. There had been too many for the pair to deal with alone; an arrow had even caught Bernard in the leg as they raced back to town to raise the alarm.
They made it even as more crude shafts whistled past them from the forest. The only way a group of the green monsters got this far south of the Keep was by being lucky or unusually competent. Which ever it was the raiding party had not pursued the group beyond the forest, edge. Bernard guessed that they had been surprised to find a town there at all, and had not wanted to tangle with an unknown quantity of guardsmen.
The townspeople took the hesitation as an opportunity to arm and organize. It was a mockable version of a siege, in which there were no walls and no armies. A week of nervous patrols around the edge of the town gave no clue as to what the potential invaders were up to. Each day was an agony for Bernard as he knew his son's chances dwindled with each sunset. He also battled with the poison that had entered his system through the tainted arrowhead.
Finally, Tully, being the only town resident with any scout abilities to boast of, concluded that the menaces had moved on. Almost immediately the warrior had raised a search party to go find Jacob, despite the dim probability that he actually still lived. Bernard had relinquished his spot in the group only after being told bluntly that every second counted and that in his weakened state, there was no way he could keep up.
A day's journey from town they had found the savaged and barely recognizable corpses of Bruno and Tom. There was little in the way of grief, but still quite a bit of disgust. One could only hope the bones had been stripped that way after they were dead. Though few in the search party thought they'd find the object of their search alive, a glare from Tully made it obvious that they weren't going home till they found evidence, one way or another. From there, the story met up with Jacob's own untold half.
The only satisfaction Jacob could derive from the tale was that Bruno and Tom would never be able to make good their final threat regarding Emily. Aside from that, he felt dead. He could not see, could not speak; could not partake in his old life in any way. There were frequent bursts of frustration amidst the gray emotional sea of shock. He rose from the chair and made his way across the room practically sightless and on unsteady legs that were no longer quite the same as he was used to.
Having spent three years in the family's current abode, he was able, by memory, to go to the wall where he knew the family mirror to hang. Glass of such reflective quality was rare and expensive; most could not afford such a luxury. Thus he did not pick up the heirloom, still not trusting the newly odd shape of his fingers. He pointed to the framed rectangle and then using both hands gestured up and down at himself.
The quiet held at bay earlier reigned over the room. Mistaking it for a lack of understanding, the young man began to repeat the gesture. Bernard immediately began the difficult job of describing to his son exactly what he looked like now.
His skin had turned a bright green, and was taking on a scaly appearance. The arms had grown shorter and less muscular, his legs had lost about four inches, and his torso was longer. There was no longer any real distinction between his nose and upper lip, and his eyes were at least twice the size they had been, covered by the two bruised looking membranes that had been his eyelids. As far as his father could tell, the back of his breeches was pulled tight against the beginnings of a thick tail. The fingers at the end of his hands had lengthened and grown thinner, except for the bizarrely swollen tips. His feet were undergoing the same, as they began to resemble his hands which were not hands. Finally, his ear lobes were retreating, and his hair was coming out in patches.
All in all, the report painted a grim and freakish picture, especially considering that there was no sign that the curse had finished with him. He simply nodded, allowing a despairing hiss out against his better judgment. No one in his family commented. With that, he went to his small corner of the house and pulled himself into bed, pretending to slumber despite the fact that the night no longer seemed to bring sleepiness. There he cried perhaps his final human tears privately behind those forever-closed eyelids.
Two days passed during which he did not leave his sleeping place. Meals were brought to him hesitantly, none of which seemed to agree with his new body. The vegetables met with the most rejection, however, and were soon removed from the offerings.
Bernard both realized something had to be done and that he was too close to Jacob to be the one to do it. Thus it was that on the third afternoon since Jacob's return that the family quietly found excuses to be elsewhere when Tully walked into the log residence. The scrape of a stool on the wooden floor was audible as the new arrival dragged it over in front of the afflicted youth's bed.
"Lad," he began, "there isn't a person on this earth that won't tell ya that ya've been put through Hell. But, your da 's the strongest man Ah've ever known. And when I mean strength, Ah don't mean muscle. Ah mean that inner strength that lets him take life by the horns and wrest from it as fair a shake as he can manage for everyone; like he did those years ago in Bethyl. Ah've always considered myself a good judge of character, and it never seemed to me that the apple had fallen far from the tree. You're stronger than this, Jacob! You can fight back."
The graying man sighed inwardly, not even knowing if the youth was awake. No sign was given one way or another at the short speech. The warrior stood with the resigned knowledge that he'd said all that he could. He paused only briefly at the doorway before leaving. He hoped for the best for the form in the bed. Gods knew that he wouldn't have been strong enough to survive that himself.
Jacob had indeed been awake and listening when the speech was given. He was touched that Tully cared enough to bring down his normally gruff exterior, but the man just did not know what it was like to have one's entire life ripped from them.
It wasn't until later that night that the first sign of hope arrived and galvanized him to take the warrior's words to heart. He was staring off into nothingness as he had done for the past two nights, also spent awake. Suddenly he realized that the nothing looked like something. The moonlight streaming in through the window also leaked through the flaps of skin, but more importantly were the blurry, indistinct, but definitely real shapes of the table and chairs where the family took their meals.
He sat upright, painfully crushing the tail that was continuing to grow. He barely heeded it or the pain as he tried to focus on the shadowed world around him. With growing energy he tossed back the blankets and exited the cabin as fast as he could.
Before him, bathed in the pale white glow of the moon, lay the world. Even the increased light did not diminish the lack of definition to objects, but that wasn't important. What was important was that he could see! He let out an odd sound of joy to the night air. The speech from earlier came fresh to his mind and he knew that it was indeed time he reclaimed what he had lost.
First things first, however, Jacob reentered the house and grabbed his winter cloak to ward off the night chills he found himself increasingly sensitive to. He tied a pair of thin blankets around each bizarre foot and tucked the remainder up his pant legs. It caused them to puff out ridiculously, but even if anyone was around the farm at this hour, he doubted it would be the pants they noticed.
Had any of the family awoke during that night they would have heard sometimes jubilant sounds and sometimes frustrated squeaking clicks and hisses as their loved one fought without conventional tooth or nail to relearn what almost every babe had learned by age three.
Jacob's family awoke at the sun's ascent to find his bed empty. Bernard instantly went for the door, but before he could take two steps toward it, the cause of such panic walked through it, much steadier on his changing legs. He gave a smile, followed by a yawn that seemed to consume his entire face and staggered over to his cot where he promptly fell asleep, the small smile curling at the side of his face on the edge of his mouth. His parents stood dumbfounded. Slowly the spell was broken and they all went about their day's chores. Mary paused to arrange the blankets about her son more securely.
Jacob awoke at the onset of twilight and found his vision even clearer than the previous night. His eyelids were growing more transparent as time passed. They were also growing drier by the minute. Suddenly something large and pink darted into his vision and slid its slick surface across his eye. He flinched and drew back reflexively at the unprovoked assault. His other eye was similarly attacked, and he was surprised to realize once he got over the shock of the event that it was his own tongue he felt leaping out of his mouth and dragging itself across his lids. He wanted to feel revolted at this, but it did make his eyes feel a lot better.
He remained in bed until all the members of his family had returned and gone to sleep, not quite ready to discuss things with them. He didn't know enough words yet. When at last his parents entered the land of dreams, he rose and donned his winter apparel once more, drawing the hood up over his face as much as possible. His visage hidden by the cloth and the darkness of night, he quietly exited his abode and proceeded into the rest of the town.
Stopping before a building that somehow managed to seem more weather-beaten than its neighbors of equal age, he rapped on the simple door a few times. When there was no answer, he glanced about and hit the planks with greater force. This clamor was apparently enough to wake the not-quite dead, as a string of vile curses and the sound of approaching footsteps could be heard beyond the wooden portal. The door opened to reveal a bleary-eyed and angry Tully trying to figure out who was disturbing him at this hour.
It was a challenge, but Jacob managed to wrap his unusually long tongue into the necessary positions to say the words he had practiced all last night. "Thank you," he said in an awkward voice that still sounded far from natural. It was enough to change the expression of anger into one of shock as Tully realized who this midnight troublemaker was. Before he could say anything though, his visitor left back into the night.
4 years later
Jacob fought back a yawn as he started paying attention to what his eyes were telling him once more. Learning to sleep had been one of the most annoying challenges once his lids had finally gone completely transparent. That and coming to terms with the bright green snout that occupied the edge of vision from each eyeball. Stretching, he stood up from where he had been basking throughout the day and dusted off his cloak. The sun was virtually set and he had chores to do.
Bernard had considerately left the tools of the trade nearby and Jacob moved to take them. The sensation of the last quarter of his five-foot tail dragging along on the earth was a familiar one by now. As his surreal hands gripped the handle of the hoe, he wistfully remembered the days when he had thumbs. They had, along with his ear lobes and every hair on his body, vanished completely as the change had run its course. It made some tasks more difficult, but he had adapted and was able to do most things as well as when he had been fifteen.
The moon wended its way through the heavens, providing enough light that his nocturnal eyes could see with the ease of others at noon. They were slightly creepy. Each was as large as an apple, and situated unblinking on the sides of his flattened head. Large black vertically slit pupils occupied most of the orbs, banded by a thin inch wide blue iris that was one of the few remaining hallmarks of his former humanity.
As night gave way to day and he finished his share of the work, he walked back to the homestead. It had become customary for him to eat breakfast with them before going to sleep. It was a welcome opportunity to spend time with those he loved. He left the tools near the doorway for father to use after eating.
Entering, he found the all but Mary just beginning to rise. His mother was at the stove already preparing the food. He gave her a warm close-mouthed smile, and told his father of which parts of the field might still need work. Jacob's voice still sounded somewhat odd, but it was once more in the realm of human. The words flowed easily and as quickly as anyone else's.
As the terrible two awoke he gave them each a cursory good morning. Robert and Sarah each returned one in kind. The three were not as close as before the tragedy. Already closer to each other due their similar ages, the pair had never reconciled the walking lizard with the image of their big brother and simply turned more to each other than before. Rob was growing so fast that Jacob wondered if he would one day be looking up at his little brother, especially given the 5'10" height the curse had left him at.
Geoffrey was a different story altogether. Too young to remember much of Jacob's human form, the boy had taken to the morph with the innocence of youth. The eight year old yelped as he became the victim of a slurping by a sizeable tongue. He made a show of putting up a fuss about it, but his older brother knew he liked it; he always had. It was the little ones third favorite 'trick', falling just after the ridiculous faces, and the belly rides on the ceiling.
Jacob picked Geoff up in preparation to give him one of the latter, but was stopped short by his mothers sharp admonition, "Don't you dare, Jacob. Breakfast is ready, so sit down at the table." With a sheepish grin and a quick apology to the disappointed child, he slid the stool over to the table and sat down.
Breakfast was soon served and everyone attacked it with vigor. Jacob's helping consisted largely of bacon, which his stomach tolerated well enough. He would sometimes have cheese just for variety, as well as some fruits when they were in season. Two additional types of nutrition supplemented this, but he didn't like to mention the shed skin or the insects to anyone, even his family.
The brood was just finishing up its meal when Tully came swaggering in with a cheerful greeting for everyone. Bernard asked, "What has you so chipper this morning my friend?"
Casting a glance at Mary, he replied, "Ah really shouldn't discuss it in front of the lady." Mary gave the aging man a mock grimace and a blow alongside the head for the implication.
Sarah piped up and said admonishingly, "Don't you mean ladies?" Only to have the warrior look knowingly back and say, "Sarah, darling, we all know that you are no lady." The entire room cracked up at the bluntly stated truth, and Sarah, for her part, took it with a smile of good humor.
As the chuckles died down, Tully reached behind his back and removed a sealed letter which he held up and waved a little as he said, "All fun aside, Bernie, I'm here on business." He handed the missive to the head of the house and then sat down at an empty place and accepted some breakfast scraps that Mary offered him out of habit.
The front was addressed simply, "To the Leadership of New Bethyl" and impressed into the red wax on the front was the seal of the Duke of Carreas. Alarm entering his voice, he asked Tully, "Where did you get this?" Nodding knowingly at his friend's concern, the visitor swallowed his bite of food and said, "Ah was returning home late one night from Gregory's place when this cloaked midget approaches me. He was wrapped from head ta toe in cloth and Ah'll be danged if I saw a single hair of 'im. Figure he was a leper or something. Anyway, he asked where he could find the whoever was in charge."
"Nat'rally, I told him where your place was, but, being that it was the middle of the night, he would have to wait 'til morning to see you. He seemed to get worked up about that and then he hands me this letter, saying, "That won't be possible, I am leaving tonight. Please give him or her this letter. I, have some business to take care of to the north, but I will be back in about a week for the reply.""
"So," the warrior said after finishing his recounting of the letter's origin, "what is it that we need to make a reply to?" Bernard used his breakfast knife to break the seal and find out just that. He sat silently reading for a few minutes, his facial expressions changing but revealing nothing. Finishing, he sighed and put the letter down, "It would seem that we are being offered a chance to go home."
The town commons was a filled with the clamor of voices the following day as people wondered at what announcement was so important that Bernard had asked every last person to attend if possible. It would appear they were about to find out, as the man stepped up onto the podium. Calling out in a loud voice that carried clearly over the assembled crowd, he began.
"People of New Bethyl, just under nine years ago, we were forced to flee our homes before the iron fist of Duke Mechellos Carras. Just this morning, I have received word that he is dead! And in all likelihood has been burning in hell for a year now." He waited for the cheers to die down before resuming, "The new ruler is his nephew, Anteno Carras, and it was his messenger who bore the news. During his short reign he has already begun to purge the court of the worst of Mechello's lackeys and set right the wrongs committed during his uncle's rule." There was mixed reaction from the crowd about this piece of news and they fell to murmuring amongst themselves.
"Furthermore," Bernard continued, seizing their attention once more, "in an attempt to show his sincerity to the nation of Carreas, he is having the town of Bethyl rebuilt, and is offering for us to return to our old home and help it to prosper." The crowd erupted in debate as people bandied the news with their neighbors. It was a long time before the noise died down to the point where Bernard even considered trying to speak again. When it did happen though, he said, "I have no way of verifying, the truth of any of these statements, but I urge each family to consider it and make their own decision. I, however, plan to remain here." The crowd exploded in noise that made the previous uproar look tame and Bernard simply left.
The week passed and family after family began to cast their lot for return. Bernard kept a straight face as they gave him the news, but later after the doors were closed, he the signs of worry were evident. None of the family spoke of it, but they all knew what was worrying him.
The only safety in this wilderness lay in numbers, and as far out from other communities as New Bethyl lay, it was dependent on the varied skills of its inhabitants for many of its necessities. If enough people left, New Bethyl would no longer be viable, and those that otherwise wished to remain would have no choice but to leave. These were the fears on his mind when Tully came to speak with him.
The warrior was the avatar of seriousness today, and it was evidenced in his voice when he said, "Bernie, we need to talk. Two out of ev'ry three families in this town are making plans pulling up stakes and accepting Anteno's offer. Tha other third are just sittin' on their hands because you aren't leaving and they trust you ta lead them in tha right direction. The town can't to survive any longer." Bernard opened his mouth to speak, but his friend cut him off, "Look, Ah know ya want to stay, but ya have to face the facts. If you don't go tell those remaining people that they need ta start planning for next fall, their suffering will be on your head. Worse if tha next group of lutins isn't so easily frightened off."
Finally given his chance to speak, the dying town's leader replied, "I WILL make it work if all I'm left with is a baker and the town drunkard. We can scrape by between caravans, work as a community to trade for what we need. We can camoflage the true size of the town from the lutins, make it seem too big a target. We can..."
"Go back home," Jacob interrupted in his own unique voice as his black clad, green form entered the room. "Dad, we both know why you are staying here; and its not fair to Mom and the others. Even if everyone working themselves to the bone could make it work, they deserve better."
"There aren't any other options, Jacob," said Bernard. "You wouldn't be able to come with us. You know that the rest of the world isn't like New Bethyl."
The gecko nodded, "You're right, I can't go with you."
"You can't stay here alone!" his father protested.
The young man nodded again, "That's true too. I'll go north; to Metamor." Before any objections could be raised, reasoned, "I'm nineteen now, Dad. It was about time I found a roof of my own anyway. I should be safe at the Keep."
"Fine, then I'll tell the rest of the town to head back to Carreas, and we'll all go to live there," his father insisted.
"I appreciate the thought, but I couldn't let that happen. I know I've adjusted well, and I've been happy these last four years... but this" Jacob said, holding up a single four-fingered freakish green hand, "is Hell, and I'll not see any of you put through it."
Bernard had known Tully was right, and he knew Jacob was right. He just hadn't been willing to accept it yet. With no other recourse he simply embraced his son and they simply stayed that way for a while. Finally he stepped back and said, "Very well, I'll tell your mother. Tully start spreading the word to those who havn't decided to leave that they don't have a choice anymore."
The bizarre messenger returned three days later than expected, once more in the middle of the night. Bernard awoke to speak with him this time, and said that the Bethlyians would graciously accept Anteno's offer, and expected they would leave after the next harvest and arrive a few months beyond that, fleeing the advancing northern winter. The bargain was struck and all involved were satisfied at least to some degree.
Jacob and his family knew their time together was short, and they made the most of the year left to them, making every effort to spend each moment together. Still the year seemed to have flown past all too quickly, when the eve of the appointed departure finally arrived. The town was filled with wagons already loaded with food and possessions in preparation for morning, when they would all set out in a colossal chain, carrying the refugees toward what was hoped would be a better life.
In front of their cabin, Mary, Bernard, and their progeny stood saying goodbye for the forseeably near future. Jacob was wrapped from the tip of scaled face to trailing tail in warm clothing. A cloth sack full of provisions and scant belongings was slung over his shoulder. His innermost cloak radiated an inner warmth that felt pleasant in warding off the chill air of the late autumn night. It had been gifted to him just this evening. He had no idea where his family had obtained the heat-enchanted cloth or how they had managed to pay for such an exorbitant item. However, whatever strain it had or would put on them could not be undone now, so he had accepted the garment with a sincerity of gratitude he didn't feel he could possibly express.
There were tearful and emotional goodbyes on the lips of everyone, and then it was time to go. All six of them tried to deny it and keep it at bay for just a few seconds longer, but it was a battle that they ultimately could not win. Jacob had a two-day journey on foot ahead of him, and snow threatened to come to the region with each passing sunrise. On the morrow, his family would lead the rest of the town south, to return home.
Tully's arrival seemed to be the final nail in the coffin. Giving the warrior a chance to make an appearance had been the final bastion of reason against leaving. The gray-haired man had also come bearing a gift. He tossed a long thin object to Jacob, which placed it close enough for the others to see what the reptile's eyes had already identified. It was a spear with a wooden shaft of five feet topped by a sharp metal spire of eight inches. "No one should be on these roads unarmed. I know Ah havn't taught you how to use one of those, but the spike is just to make it look fierce. You can use it just like a staff," was the explanation accompanying the present. Jacob gave him a grin and the 'staff' an experimental twirl, and then said, "Thanks, Tully."
There could be no more stalling. The gecko-morph hugged each of his family members in turn. He offered his bizarre hand for Tully to shake, but the normally gruff man would have none of it, and pulled him into a quick bear hug, and finished with a slap on the back. Jacob gave one last smile to all and then started padding his way west, one cloth wrapped foot after the other, to the road that would take him to Metamor Keep.
The journey was uneventful. Two nights and mornings were spent traveling, and one afternoon was spent in unmolested sleep, nestled securely in a tree. The Keep itself had become visible well before he reached it on the second afternoon. Its tall towers seemed the columns that supported the sky itself. It had only grown bigger as he continued to approach, and now that he stood at its gates, his mind had trouble fully comprehending the expanse of the mighty walls.
He waited in a short line in front of that guarded stone archway to gain admittance. After confessing that the reason for his arrival was to apply for residence, he was waved on through and into the crowd milling to and fro beyond.
All of the men and women seemed to be perfect sculptures made flesh, many of the latter girded for war. Children were everywhere, running and playing in packs in some cases, running market stands in others. Furthermore, fully a third or more of the faces were twisted into the amalgam of human and animal that he had become personally familiar with four years ago.
Amidst the bustling throng of... humanity?..., he was uncertain where to begin carving out a life for himself. One thing was certain, though. Jacob, for the first time since the curse had taken him, felt truly faceless and alone.