Cursed Child (part 3/3)
There was just enough time to notice Rat’s eyes widening with fear before her familiar rooms vanished and she found herself holding an empty fork in the middle of a wide plain. He hadn’t been carried along. She shook her head. They had planned for what he could do while waiting for her, just in case. She imagined him looking through the picture books stacked beside his nest and hoped he wouldn’t feel abandoned.
Given the possibilities, her first jump was only shocking because she felt intimidated by the vast distance on every side. There was very little variation in the terrain. Not even a tree to measure, though the unfamiliar grass was tall enough to shade even her head when she sat down to wait.
The sun was high, here, unlike home where it was still early morning. The stifling atmosphere hung heavy with the scent of pollen and the faint taste of dust. She pulled a cloth from her pack to shelter herself from the sun and nibbled on some dried fruit as she began her official journal, knowing it would be several hours wait.
On her return, Rat jumped to his feet from the nest and ran toward her, hesitating just out of reach. “Yer here!”
She opened her arms invitingly and he jumped into them with a brief hug before backing away and circling her as if looking for something.
She laughed at his concerned expression, glad that she wasn’t alone after all. “You’re going to make me dizzy walking around like that. What are you looking for?”
“Yer not hurt?” He plucked a grass stem from the back of her leggings and turned it in his fingers, looking thoughtful.
“No, just overly warm. It felt like summer there already, and the sun couldn’t be avoided.” She dropped the pack with a sigh of relief and set about replacing what she had used. When he continued to stare, she described the grassy plain to him and the habits of the small animals and bugs she had studied while waiting.
She pulled the first pages from her unbound journal and set them on the table. Once he finished examining the sketches she’d drawn, the pages would remain behind for the priests, who had asked her to record as many details of her jumps as possible.
Her journals would likely seem just as useless to future Cursed Ones as those from before seemed to her. There was nothing of a final destination in any of them, and only random overlaps among the locations of their jumps.
“Yer pack goes along. Why can’t I?”
She glanced up from a brief note letting her guards know the curse had finally activated. “Hmm.” She spun the pen in her fingers and considered the question.
“Well, people usually don’t want to be entangled in the curse, so there aren’t records of bringing anyone on purpose.
“Attachments come through whole going out because they get pulled into the jump just like we do. Those people just don’t usually come back again, at least not unless they’re small and easily carried. One time when a Cursed One tried to pull someone along back home again it brought half of their friend’s body along and left the rest behind.”
Rat seemed to find this more fascinating than gut wrenching. She hadn’t been able to read the rest of that particular journal for months, and had Nana cover that section of the record so she wouldn’t have to read it again. He nodded eagerly, so she continued.
“The Curse always takes us whole, of course, but whatever comes along has to be small and easily carried or it gets damaged. Like if we’re chained down the curse just burns right through the bindings and takes us anyway.”
Given his recent experience with being bound and sold, his expression at that last part was probably envy, but she pulled back a little at the intensity of it.
“Wouldn’t it be safer to ask my father to protect you?”
“Do ya swear he will? Or is it just hopin’?”
Wincing from the fact that she really didn’t know much about the man she called “Father,” she tugged at the straps of the pack and considered her answer. “I can’t swear for him,” she said, finally. “I want to believe he’d help you, though.”
“Ha!” There were far too many experiences of betrayal contained in that short, sharp laugh for her comfort.
“Let’s see if I can even carry you along with the pack, first.” She crouched down so he could wrap his arms around her neck then lifted him carefully. He certainly was very small.
“I wouldn’t want to walk anywhere like this, but I can lift you quite easily. Let me finish this note and I’ll hold you. Maybe we can use Nana’s sash to tie you on so I won’t accidentally drop you.”
He hovered close as she finished the note and tugged her arm the moment she put it into the delivery box. “Hurry!”
It was surprisingly pleasant sitting and looking through picture books with him on her lap. Nana’s sash proved just long enough to secure him in place, and she kept one arm clamped around his ribs for balance. She wondered if this was how siblings felt while caring for each other in the stories Nana told her.
The next jump pulled both of them through successfully. The fall was thankfully short, onto a soft pile of dead leaves and moss, since the chair had vanished out from under her once again. She’d move to cushions on the floor before the next jump.
They managed to untangle themselves from the sash and sat up to look around.
“Oh, my!” She crouched beside him and stared upward in awe, admiring the long pillars of the trees that surrounded them.
“Told ya trees can be tall! This is forest!” He gestured grandly, as if he had created the place just for her.
She grinned down at him for a moment before her eyes were inevitably drawn back around the multicolored plants surrounding them, then up to wander amid the branching patterns against the sky. “I wish I could stay here forever! Look at all these plants!”
He pointed to a deep hollow in the base of one of the trees, large enough for both of them to stand inside. “We can live in a tree!”
Pulling out her sketchbook, she tried to capture the grandeur of her surroundings while Rat explored. As she examined a bit of moss in preparation for recording its shape, he suddenly came crashing back, twigs snapping beneath his feet.
“Hide! Huge! Animal! Danger!”
It took time to calm him enough to understand that he’d found the fresh imprint of a massive paw in the soft mud beside a nearby spring. She stared around, wondering where they might find safety, but he pointed toward a low cliff they could climb that would bring them high enough to jump onto the lower branches of a small tree, at least compared to the rest.
It was awkward, but after abandoning most of the contents of her pack they managed to climb high enough to feel safe while waiting. She tied him in front of her without objection on his part. Later they watched what she thought must be a bear wander off after rooting through the pile they’d left behind. This was clearly no place for a small boy to live on his own. Perhaps the next jump would be better.
After three more jumps to remote locations including the icy top of a mountain in the dark; the center of a shallow, murky swamp; and an evening desert full of painful thorns she had grown tired of the novel experience of holding a living being close for so long. On their fifth jump together they finally landed near a small village surrounded by farmland. It was early morning just like home this time, and the locals were already working in their fields.
He’d laughed when she worried they might take advantage of him if she left him there like she’d read in a story about a poor farm girl whose step mother had treated her like a slave. “Can’t escape ‘n a city. Too many pryin’ eyes lookin’ for runaways ev’n outside the walls. Here, I c’n slip off at night if’n I want ‘n nobody the wiser.”
She caved beneath his confident expression. He seemed certain of his ability to adapt to nearly anything. She couldn’t imagine just running off with no guarantee of shelter, but his lazy father had left him to provide for himself for most of his short life and he claimed he was used to the challenge. He seemed to become even more energetic and confident with each new jump, helping her pull the necessary items from her pack and secure themselves against the environment.
In her opinion, her curse was all the worse for its tendency to drop her in unpredictable locations, and she was glad for the jumps back home, where he always became more silent and worried in contrast.
She was relieved when the locals were able to understand that Rat had lost his family and she was protecting him temporarily while looking for an apprenticeship he could grow into.
A solid woman with a deeply tanned face came out of her fields to talk to them before pointing down a dusty track beside a stream. “Gersha’s who you want to talk to, down that way past the broken tree. She lost her man a few months back. Their farm’s enough to provide both work and food for the willing. Boy can learn animal tending from the son and healing from her. She’s the one they call for most illness hereabouts, and she’ll be happy for an assistant since her son wants to focus on the farm these days.”
They found the place without much difficulty, and were able to negotiate what Rat considered a fair trade of work in exchange for food, shelter, and training. Based on Gersha’s protective reaction to his fabricated story of being left alone to fend for himself with nothing more than rags but for Sky’s help, she thought the woman would end up thinking of herself as his mother soon enough.
While the teenage son was silent and stiff when he emerged from their small barn at his mother’s call, he seemed happy at the thought of no longer having to help with her herb gathering and healing.
Sky left her pack with Rat in case anything inside might be useful, then managed to avoid the invitations to eat with them and make it out of sight before the curse snatched her home again.
“Father, I’ve managed to find the boy a place with a farm widow and her son who is several years older. He’ll be her apprentice, since she’s the one who deals with illness in the area.”
“If you can find where I left him, please check on Rat and make sure he’s doing all right. I’ve never had the chance to help anyone before. I hope I did well to leave him there, since I won’t have a chance to fix any mistakes.
She described the farm and listed the nearby towns, wondering what her father would think of his first letter by her hand. Nana had always been the one to write reports for him until now.
“Nana said you have a lot of power and influence here, so could you make sure that no more young children are sold in this way? I feel it is extremely unfair that a parent can sell a child’s freedom and safety away when they are so very young.
“I’ve realized now how protected I’ve always been. Shouldn’t poor children be educated to become helpful citizens even more than I, who could never do anything for anyone before today?
“Thank you for my life, Father. Good bye.”
Straightening her spine against the weight of her newest pack, she dropped wax and pressed Nana’s seal into the folded letter, wrote her father’s name on the outside, and left it beside the growing stack of journal pages on the table.
The jumps were drawing closer together. It wouldn’t be much longer before they began to cluster too closely to allow much time for worry.
Around her the room no longer felt quite as empty. The sight of Rat’s nest of blankets in the corner made her smile. Somewhere out in the world he would be helping his new family with some task. Even though she would never see him again, she couldn’t feel as lonely knowing he was safe.
She wondered what would come next. Her own story’s ending, as with every other Cursed One, would not be recorded in history. Perhaps she, too, would finally live free.
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