The Curse

The two men slipped through the night's shadows, pursuing the woman through the streets of Nefza. The smaller man raised a hand to his companion and they paused in the western corner of the souq.

"She's too far ahead," Waleed said. Moonlight drew strange shadows from the scars on his face. "We won't find her here."

"No matter," his companion replied, shrugging mountainous shoulders. Adam's bulk complemented Waleed's wiry speed. Together, they had been the king's bodyguards for twenty years. "We know where she's going."

Waleed nodded, and the pair loped off toward the western gate.

Outside the city, they headed for a circle of torches, some distance away but clearly visible in the still air. "How is your boy?" Waleed asked as they paused for a sip of water.

The big man suppressed a sigh. "We took him to see new sorcerers in Al-Azrah," he said.

"Did they help?" Waleed asked. Adam shook his head. Waleed grunted in sympathy. Adam, who could fell an ox with a punch, had only one son. The boy had been born small and frail, and even now stood only half as tall as his younger cousins. Waleed hoped that one day Adam would stop chasing rumors of a cure and accept his son's fate, but he'd never say this to Adam. A son is a man's pride, he thought, and to let go of your dreams for your son is a task full of pain.

As they drew closer to the torches, Waleed spotted their quarry. "There," he pointed. Sliding like water in the shadows between the dunes was a slight shape, weighed down by a bulky pack. "Hurry!"

Adam slowed. "Wait," he said. "Let her see him. She's come this far." Waleed and Adam skirted the circle of mosaic tiles lit by the torches. In the center, a life-sized statue of a man on horseback faced the distant city, a look of sadness on his stone face. A haggard young woman crept into the light.

Princess Suroor carefully lay her bundle by the horse's feet and placed a hand on the rider's knee. "Beloved, the carp in the courtyard pool told me how to break the curse. I gathered nettles in the marsh at the full moon and wove them into this cloak."

Suroor opened her pack and drew out a large roll of fabric. Climbing the statue, the princess draped the rustling cloak across the horseman's shoulders. "Now, my love," the princess murmured, settling herself in the marble saddle before the rider and stroking his unmoving face. "Come back to me!"

The princess kissed the statue's chill lips, her eyes closed. Waleed held his breath, anxious to see what would happen even though he already knew. The silence stretched forever under the desert moon. Finally, the princess pulled back, studying the prince's pale, lifeless face.

"Tamsen?" she cried. "My love, what's wrong? Why isn't the curse broken?" The princess beat her fists against her lover's stone chest, her wails rising like smoke into the night.

 "Adam!" Waleed called. But Adam was already rushing across the tiles to lift the princess from the statue and hold her with great gentleness as she fought him. Waleed drew a vial from his pouch and forced the princess to drink. She sagged in Adam's arms, unconscious.

In a room full of sunlight and the scent of jasmine, the king sat beside Suroor's bed. Adam and Waleed stood by the door, unobtrusive. Beside the king, a tall man bent to check the sleeping princess.

"Your highness," the sorcerer murmured deferentially, "her pulse is strong. She should recover from the effects of the draught soon."

The four men waited. The room was quiet except for the song of the thrush, fluting in its gilt cage by the window.

Princess Suroor opened her eyes and sat up abruptly. "My dear," the king soothed, "everything's all right. You're safe."

"The carp was wrong!" she cried, clutching the king's hand in both of hers. "Your son's curse is unbroken." The princess wept, while the old man tried in vain to comfort her. "Please, you have to let me try again. Don't keep us apart!"

The king's eyes were also full of tears. "Daughter of my heart," he said, "you were kidnapped by outlaws on the morning of your wedding. Tamsen, my only son and the jewel of my old age, rode after you with my finest guards. They rescued you and rode back toward the city. Tamsen carried you in front of him on the swiftest horse. But an arrow found him as he rode."

The old man's thin voice broke. Waleed closed his eyes, to give the king some privacy in his grief. "I had a statue raised there, where he fell, to remember his courage and his love for you. Child, the prince isn't cursed. Tamsen is dead."

Suroor's eyes widened, full of sudden comprehension. Waleed was already halfway across the room, but he was too late to prevent the princess from flinging herself out of the window. Leaning over the sill, Waleed looked down toward the souq below, then turned to nod at Adam. The big man slipped out of the room.

Waleed moved aside so that the king and his sorcerer could stand at the window. The king gestured toward where Adam was untangling the princess from the broad net stretched below the window. "Every time she remembers, she does this," he explained. "The first time she would have died, if not for a merchant's awning in the street below. Since then, we've had the net." The king gestured to Waleed. "Go help Adam bring her back."

As Waleed left, he heard the king tell his new sorcerer, "Make her forget again." The old man's voice turned cold. "And see that you do a better job than your predecessors."


Torah Cottrill

The Curse, flash fiction, Issue 25, December 1, 2013

Torah Cottrill, I've lived and traveled all over the world, including a stint as a Foreign Service Officer in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, before settling in the Pacific Northwest with a fixed number of children and a variable number of pets. By day I'm an editor; in the evenings, I tie on my dark mask and prowl the rooftops, moonlighting as a writer.

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