The Curse of the Ebon Maw Chapter Ten by A.S. Raithe

Breakfast was a rushed affair. Neither Mira nor Echo had much appetite after the previous night’s discussion. The knight struggled to eat half her plate, and the duchess barely finished her eggs. Both children were more than happy to send their dishes back clean.

They found the go’thial priest, Healer, waiting for them when they went downstairs. Norm’s face scrunched as he studied the priest from behind his steaming mug of coffee.

“I don’t get it,” he grumbled. “Don’t you guys have spells to cure diseases?”

“That’s the devil of it.” Healer hunched down as best he could to be at their level. “We do, but there ain’t a one as much as touching it.” His gravelly growl of frustration shook the table. “We can’t even detect it with the strongest magic we got. It’s like… like it don’t even exist.”

“Looks like we’ve got our work cut out for us,” said Zhel.

“Caleb, dear?” Echo began as the boy finished her sausages. “Where did you live? With your parents that is.”

“We live in the windmill!” Vivveen chirped brightly.

Mira couldn’t help but smile at the cheerful child. Despite all she’d endured, her spirit remained untainted. She couldn’t explain how, but she could feel the purity in the girl.

“It’s just outside town, mademoiselle.” Caleb gestured absently. “You cannot miss it.”

Healer nodded contemplatively. “Tainted grain’s caused more than a few plagues.” Worry creased the children’s faces. “Don’t you worry none.” He patted their heads. “It wouldn’t’ve been nothing your folks done. It’ve been the crop infected. One bad bushel could’ve contaminated the whole harvest.”

“It is a good a place as any to begin, Broth— Healer but—” Echo’s lips screwed in thought. “If it’d been the grain, wouldn’t the outbreak have begun right after the fall harvest? Why now? Right after the winter?”

“Good point,” he grunted.

“What about currants?” Mira suggested.

The priest shot her a quizzical look. “I don’t think they’re too popular ‘round here. Least, I ain’t seen none yet.”

“And forgive me, my knight, but I’ve never heard of currants carrying a wasting plague,” Echo added.

“No, but they can cause a blight.” She sat up in her seat. “When I was still a squire, we had to burn a hundred acres of currant fields to prevent the spread of white pine blister rust. That blight needs the currants and pine trees.”

Zhel perked. “You’re suggesting a combination of factors. Bad grain mingled with the winter melt.”

Mira shrugged. “Just tossing out ideas. I know.” She shifted awkwardly in her seat, her feathers flattening. “It’s probably stupid.”

“No,” said Echo, as she sat forward. “No, you might be onto something.” She turned to the bar. “Master Armand,” she began to the bartender. “Had you many travelers this past winter?”

He scoffed. “Not a soul’s been through since the first frost.”

Eyes wide, she snapped back to the others. “Don’t eat the bread! Anything made of flour for that matter.”

Healer nodded fervently. “I’ll hurry back to the west ward and tell the others.” He rose from his seat. “I’ll meet you at the mill.”

“The bread is bad?” said Vivveen.

“Bread, muffins, scones, anything made of flour could be the culprit,” Echo explained to her.

The child cocked her head. “What’s a culprit?”

“She means the thing that could be causing everyone to get sick,” Mira said as she pulled her into her lap.

C’est mauvais,” Caleb gasped. “What should we do?”

The go’thial mussed his hair. “Think you two could spread the word? Go ‘round town and let everyone know they shouldn’t make nothing with flour from the past harvest ‘til we’ve had a proper chance to inspect.”

And tell them to boil their water before they use it,” Echo added. She looked from the children back to the others. “Cover both leads in one go.”

“Smart,” said Norm.

“I’ll go with them,” Zhel muttered more to himself than the others.

“Master Zhel?” said Echo.

“The children. I can’t, in good conscience, leave them on their own. I know this is their village but—” He shook his head. “The people are scared. They’ll want an explanation, and I couldn’t live with myself if anything more happened to them.”

“Good man,” said Healer. “May Her Holiness warm your way.”

Echo finished her morning tea. “We’ll reconvene about midday.” She got to her feet, stretching her wings. “Dame Mira, Master Norman, let’s be off.”

A quick flyover located the mill a few miles outside town high upon one of the older dikes. The blades turned slowly in the wind. Their regular grinding almost soothing as the three approached.

It was a simple structure of clear age. The mill itself was built primarily of brick harvested from the local clay with an attached home of cypress and with a shingled roof. The walls were painted a muddy red, and the shutters were stained the gold of wheat.

At their approach, a flock of starlings took to wing. Mira made a once around of the buildings. Nothing. No movement. Only those birds showed any life. She flew in close to the pig pen in the rear of the building and nearly retched. There laid a sow and her piglets, all dead. Wasted away. Atrophied into husks.

“Anything?” Echo asked as she rejoined her and Norm.

Mira shook her head. “Nothing living anyway,” she said before describing the mummified pigs.

“It would seem the Hunger cares little for its host, my knight,” said Echo.

“I thought we already figured that out with the wargs,” said Norm.

“Fair.” Echo shrugged. “Where you reckon we should start?”

Norm nodded towards the mill. “You heard big boy. They eat everything they can, so I’m sure the house is picked clean.”

“Agreed,” said Echo. “Though I’d like to have a look inside once we’ve finished.” She turned to them. “At least get the children fresh clothes.”

They pressed into the mill proper. Absent any maintenance for so long, it was wearing down. Obvious stress fractures were forming. Loud clunks signaled broken gear teeth. If no one stepped in, soon it would, quite literally, grind itself to a halt.

Sooooo… what are we looking for exactly?” said Norm.

“Mold,” said Echo. “Spoiled grains and flour that may’ve been left behind.”

“Yeah, because a windmill that hasn’t had any upkeep in months, in a swamp, in the spring would be the epitome of cleanliness,” Norm quipped.

Echo sighed heavily. “It is a shaky lead, I’ll give you that, but it’s a start.”

“Rats,” said Mira. They looked confusedly to her. “Anywhere there’s food is going to attract pests, right? We should start looking for dead rats, mice, whatever. If they’ve been killed by the Hunger, we might’ve found where it came from. It’s not like anyone would be intentionally feeding them, right?”

“She’s got a point,” Echo said with a shrug.

Norm shrugged. “Fair enough.”

Pressure built at Mira’s temples as they pressed deeper into the mill. It was as if someone had clamped her head firmly in a vice and begun cranking with every step. In little time, it was unbearable. She staggered, struggling to find a rail to lean on. Breakfast threatened to revisit her from whence it entered.

Falling to a knee, static coursed through her. A familiar, though altogether unwelcome, feeling. She looked up, half expecting Charlotte to be standing next to her, or at least for Norm to be casting a spell.

“Dame knight?” said Echo, as she knelt next to her, rubbing her back soothingly.

“What’s wrong?” said Norm.

“I don’t know,” Mira muttered. “Feels like someone just hit me with a frying pan.”

Slipping an arm over her shoulders, Echo turned to Norm. “What’re you waiting for? Give us a hand.”

Fresh air filled her lungs as they lumbered outside with her. In seconds, her head cleared.

“What was all that about?” said Norm.

“I don’t know,” Mira admitted. Her face twisted as she studied him. “You weren’t casting any spells, were you?”

No?” he said, confusion plain in his voice.

“It’s just.” Mira shook her head. “Any time you cast a spell, my head gets all foggy. It’s like flying through a storm, y’know?”

“Not a clue,” he replied.

“I get it,” Echo mumbled. “Storms are bloody nightmares to fly through. The wind batters you about, which would be bad enough if you weren’t getting weighted down with water. And then there’s the lightning.” She shuddered.

“That’s what it felt like,” said Mira. “Being in there. It was like that moment before the lightning hits you. Everything’s fuzzy, and your mouth goes numb and blah!”

“Well.” Echo pressed her fist to her chin. “Healer should be along shortly. Why don’t you wait for him? Norm and I’ll continue looking about.”

“But my lady!” Mira gasped. “It’s my duty to protect you!”

“And a right fine job you’d be doing of that passed out in a bleeding windmill!”

There was nothing to debate. Echo was right.

“As you command,” Mira relented.

Mira scuffed her boots in the dirt, kicking rocks as she waited for Healer. It felt like she’d preened her feathers for the hundredth time by the time the priest came into view.

“Everything alright?” he called as he neared.

“Yeah,” she sighed. “They’re poking around inside.”

He cocked an eyebrow at them. “Something the matter, dame knight?”

At first, she shook her head, but stopped and nodded. “Actually, yes. Yes, there is.” He waited quietly for her to continue. “It’s all staticky in there. That’s the only way I can explain it. I was getting sick just being inside.”

“Strange,” he muttered more to himself. “That’s not a symptom of the Hunger. Least, not as I’ve heard it.”

“Well, that’s good,” said Mira.

“Lemme pop in. Let ‘em know I’m here. Maybe me and you can poke ‘round the grounds.”

“Already did a fly around when we got here.” She grimaced at the memory of the pigs. “Haven’t been in the house yet, though.”

“Right.” He nodded thoughtfully. “Gimme a mo’ and we’ll have ourselves a look-see. Grab the little ones some clothes; see if maybe the girl might’ve left a dolly or something to play with.”

“Why hasn’t anyone taken them in yet?”

“Folks ‘round here are mighty superstitious. Bayou living and all. Goes with the territory.” He groaned with frustration. “Lots of ‘em think they’re jinxed. Cursed harbingers of the plague. Honestly, we’re sorta lucky nobody’s tried nothing stupid with ‘em to get rid of the Hunger.”

Mira’s jaw tensed. “You’ll take them with you, right? After all this is over. Get them somewhere safe?”

“Me or them priests of Korik could take ‘em to an orphanage, sure but—” He shot her a skeptical look. “They’ve taken a real shine to you and your uh… lady friend, ‘specially the girl. Could you really do that to ‘em?”

Warmth filled Mira’s wing where the child had laid. Her salary was enough to support a few others. The kids could have their own rooms. It wouldn’t be a castle, but—.

With a shake of the head, she cleared her throat. “W-We should hurry.”

Kids? Mira mentally fretted as she hurried for the house. What am I thinking? She flexed her powerful muscles and flared her wings. What part of me says “mommy material?”

Yet try as she might, she couldn’t shake the girl from her mind. The way she felt, curled in her feathers. The look of pure joy that lit her face over something as simple as a sweet roll. Even the feel of her hair as she brushed it. It was burned into Mira’s mind. There was nothing she wouldn’t do to protect that child.

Frustration welled in her throat. “Get a hold of yourself, woman.” She huffed at herself. “You’re a knight. You don’t have time to play house. You have a duty to do.” Taking a breath to compose herself, she nodded resolutely. “The priests will take them to the orphanage, or… or maybe Charlotte can take them in. Either way, they’ll be in better hands than yours.” Her eyes narrowed as she caught her reflection in the window. “Murderer.”

She clenched her fists, feeling the calluses in her palms, and turned back to wait for Healer to catch up. He wasn’t long, but as he reached her, his brow furrowed.

“What’s wrong, dame knight?”

“Nothing,” Mira said a bit more shortly than she should have.

He cocked his head at her. “Riiiight,” The skepticism dripped from his voice for a moment before he cleared his throat. “I suppose it is a bit dusty ‘round here.”

Mira raised an eyebrow at him, and he wiped his cheek before turning his eyes away. She reached up, mirroring his movement, to find tears staining her cheeks.

“Y-Yeah.” She cleared her throat. “Dusty.”

Nothing stirred within the house as the priest opened the door. Floorboards creaked under their feet as they took their first steps inside. The musty smell of hay hung in the air. A fresh, though poorly stuffed, mattress covered in blankets lay in the middle of the room. Looked like they’d found where the children had been sleeping.

They pressed deeper inside. Not that there was much to the house. The main floor was little more than an open living space centered on the hearth where the children made their bed. Next to it, sat the pantry, empty, as expected.  Not as much as a cheese rind.

A pair of ladders rose on either side of the hearth. Healer barely had to climb two rungs to reach the top. Bed lofts. Nothing more.

It was, in every way, an ordinary mill house of its type.

“Any luck?” Echo called from the door.

“Not a lick,” Healer answered. “You?”

“Mill’s been cleaned out,” said Norm. “No grain. No flour. Nothing.”

Echo sighed. “We’ve neither confirmed nor debunked our hypothesis. What a wasted morning.”

They gathered what they could and were nearly back to town when they noticed a man in a blood spattered apron hurrying their way. He was as tall as Norm and heavily muscled. His hair was thick and dark, as was his coarse beard. On spotting them, he waved before upping his pace to a light jog.

Although he appeared unarmed, something about him felt off. Mira couldn’t explain what it was, only a feeling. Putting herself between him and the others, she signaled for them to stop and wait.

Mes dieux. There… you are,” he huffed and puffed when he finally reached them. “I been looking for you all morning.”

“And who would you be that’s come looking for us?” said Echo.

“It’s alright, lass,” said Healer. “This is Romiér, the town butcher. He’s been about the only thing keeping us fed since we got here.”

“There’s plenty of gators and mud cats in the bayou, chere,” said Romiér.

“What’s the matter?” said Healer.

“Ain’t nothing wrong, Père. Well, more wrong anyway. I just heard y’all think this gris-gris is coming from the flour. That true?”

“It’s one of our theories, Master Romiér,” said Echo. “It might also be the water, or possibly some combination of the two.”

He shook his head, muttering obscenities in his native tongue. “I always knew something was wrong with that there mill,” he said, seemingly dismissing the other theories. “Ever since I was a boy. My old man was so obsessed with it. Worked himself to death in it, but I always felt like there was something wrong with it.”

Mira’s nose wrinkled. “Your dad worked in it?”

“Well I’d hope so. It was his.”

“You’re related to Caleb and Vivveen?” said Mira.

He nodded. “Their daddy is… was my brother.”

Her wings flared. “And you haven’t taken them in yet!? What is wrong with you!?”

“I tried, chere! Honest, I did but—” He shook his head. “It’s my own fault. When our old man died, he left the mill to their daddy. Said I had the shop. I didn’t need the mill, too. Well, my fat head about hit the roof. I ain’t spoke to them in… gods take me. Since Caleb’s christening and now—” Grief and regret carved his face. “Now I’ll never get a chance to see my baby brother again.”

Wiping his eyes with the corner of his apron, he looked desperately to the knight. “I heard y’all was takin’ care of them, and I hurried on up after you. Uh… here.” He pulled something bundled in brown paper from beneath his apron and offered it to them. “Meat pies. Made them with the last of the beef. Make sure they get it. They ain’t gotta know who it’s from.”

Taking it from him, she nodded.

“We’ll try to speak with them, Master Romiér,” said Echo. “Explain that even adults make mistakes. I can’t guarantee anything, but we’ll do what we can.”

He cleared his throat, composing himself. “Y’all should hurry back now. I seen them and that night elf heading back to Armand’s.”

Going their separate ways, they started back to the tavern, but something Romiér said weighed on Mira’s mind.

“What’s a ‘gris-gris’?”

Healer gave her a curious look. “A what?”

“Romiér, he said he heard us say we thought there was a gris-gris on the flour. What’s that?”

“It means ‘curse’,” came the tiniest voice Mira had ever heard.

They stopped dead and scanned the boardwalk for the speaker. But there was no one. No people. No birds. Not even a mouse. Just a single orange tabby.

“At least,” the cat continued, “that’s how I understand it.”


Continue to Chapter Eleven on June 21st.

About the Author

A. S. Raithe is a fantasy author living near Pittsburgh with his wife and children. Always the creative type, it wasn’t until high school and being introduced to a local bestselling author that he found his passion for writing. He took time away from writing to attend college before being convinced by his wife to pick it up again shortly after their wedding. Outside of writing he enjoys exercise, baking, gardening, folklore, music, and hiking.

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