“Watch out for the Curse Boy,” Titus warned.
Victor scowled as little Marshal trotted up beside him. Though all three boys were eight years old, Marshal hadn’t kept up with the other two’s growth spurts. He seemed much younger. Plus, the curse and all.
“You’re going to follow us if we don’t let you come, aren’t you?” Victor asked.
Marshal’s face twisted as he seemed to be thinking hard. Then he nodded.
Victor sighed. “All right. Come on.”
“Do we have to?” Titus asked. “He’s just going to be in the way.”
“If we don’t, he’ll follow us and we’ll probably get in trouble. If we let him come, we can keep an eye on him.”
Titus rolled his eyes and pushed past Marshal onto the trail. The three boys set off, following the well-worn path through the mountainous terrain. All of them were accustomed to this part of their quest, having spent their entire lives on the edge of the mountain pass known as Drusa’s Crossing.
“It’s the left turn,” Titus said.
“I know, I know,” Victor grumbled. Of course it was the left turn. The right turn led to the river where they did all their fishing. That was the path they always took, the path they were supposed to take. The leftward path led somewhere else, somewhere higher.
Victor took the lead and turned left, pausing only long enough to glance toward the right and make sure no one could see them. It would be just his luck if his father—or worse, his mother—chose this exact moment to wander down the path.
He felt a strange thrill as they moved out of sight of the trail’s fork. They were truly in the unknown now. No parents. No adults at all.
“My older brother took me up here a few weeks ago,” Titus said. “It’s not that far now.” He had to remind them this wasn’t his first time up the path.
The trail led up a rough incline that proved challenging for the boys, especially the shorter Marshal. In places, they had to scramble up onto rocks using all four limbs. One day, Victor vowed, he would be able to stride up these rocks with single steps. Why did growing up have to take so long? He had so many things he wanted to do, especially once he got out of this tiny village.
Marshal slipped on an angled rock, but recovered before his knee hit the ground. Victor glanced at him. The smaller boy smiled. Without the ability to speak, Marshal struggled to communicate in even simple ways. Victor felt sorry for him, but if he showed any sympathy, it would open him up to the mockery of Titus and the other village children.
“Right up there!” Titus said.
Victor pulled himself up the last step. He wobbled and managed to stand up straight. He almost lost his balance as Titus pushed his way up beside him. Both boys held on to each other as they moved to make room for Marshal on the narrow ledge. The smaller boy pushed between them.
The view was spectacular. From this slim vantage point with their backs to a rock wall, the boys could see for miles. Behind them, Mount Cassius soared another two hundred feet or more before it reached its final peak. The climb from here would be almost impossible, even for a well-trained adult.
“We’re almost as high as you can get!” Victor said. His mouth remained open as he looked from side to side. Aside from the path they had scrambled up, the ground dropped off rapidly all around them. The rocky slopes cascaded down toward the valley far below.
For the first time, Victor felt uneasy. He could understand why their parents did not want them climbing this high. The ledge was very small, and a fall from this height… he doubted anyone could survive. Maybe this hadn’t been the best idea.
Marshal pointed insistently at something to their left. Victor peered in the indicated direction. “It’s… it’s home!” he exclaimed. Amidst all the trees, a single thatched rooftop peeked out from an area that leveled off and curved mostly out of sight behind them. It had to be one of the houses in Drusa’s Crossing.
“Whose roof do you think that is?” Titus asked.
Victor squinted. “Might be Marshal’s,” he said. “His cabin is the furthest out.”
“That’s on the opposite side,” Titus disagreed. “This is the other end of town.”
“Wouldn’t that be too close to the actual pass?” Victor furrowed his brow. The climb had twisted back and forth several times, making him unsure of their actual facing.
“No, because if we were facing the other way, we would be looking into Ch’olan. People are strange there.”
“You only say that because your brother does.”
“It’s true! Some of them wear feathers!”
Marshal yanked on a spiraling root as thick as his arm. Loose dirt and pebbles rained down on all three.
“Watch it!” Victor griped.
“Dumb Curse Boy.” Titus feinted a lunge at Marshal, who wavered, a look of panic crossing his face. He grabbed at the root again.
“Stop that!” Victor said. “We should go down. It’s too dangerous up here.”
Victor’s face felt hot. “What did you say?”
Titus waved his arms. “We came all the way up here for this, and you want to go down because you’re scared! I expected that from Curse Boy here, but not you!”
“You can’t call me a coward!”
“I already did!”
Victor balled up his fist and stepped around Marshal toward Titus. “If we weren’t up here, I’d teach you a lesson!”
Marshal grabbed at Victor’s arm, but he shoved the hand away.
“I’d like to see you try it.” Titus snorted. He turned and deliberately dropped down on his behind before sliding off down onto the trail. “Whenever you’re ready.”
Victor took another step. As his right foot touched the ground, he knew he had done something wrong. His stomach plummeted and he felt a strange feeling wash over his entire body. The gravel and dirt gave way under his foot and he lost his balance.
“Victor!” Titus screamed.
Victor pivoted as he began to fall. His eyes swept past Titus’ shocked expression, past the wall of the ledge, and past Marshal, who looked… determined? Before Victor even realized what was happening, a thick root, the one Marshal had been yanking, looped over him.
In desperation, Victor grabbed at the root. He slid three feet and came to an abrupt halt. His knees banged against the rock. The root wrapped beneath one of his armpits. He seized it and looked up.
Marshal held on to both ends of the root, his teeth gritted and legs braced. Victor couldn’t grasp how he hadn’t been yanked down along with him.
“Ahhh!” A cry finally escaped Victor’s lips. He scrambled against the sheer rock wall, trying to gain a foothold of some kind. Marshal continued to hold on, but couldn’t pull Victor any higher. Titus shouted something incoherent.
Leaning on the root that encircled him, Victor released it with one hand, reached up and grabbed it a few inches higher. He pulled, legs still searching for anything at all to brace against.
Marshal looked back over his shoulder at the root’s source. Victor followed his look. One end of the root extended from the ledge’s wall about three feet above Marshal’s head. The other curved around out of sight. Marshal nodded. He released the side whose end wasn’t visible, and bent down, still holding onto the other side of the root. His outstretched hand didn’t come anywhere near Victor, but he did take hold of a lower spot on the root and pulled.
Victor also pulled and managed to scramble up a few more inches, grabbing a higher spot.
Titus attempted to get onto the ledge to help, but between Marshal and the spot Victor had collapsed, he couldn’t find room. He slid back down onto the trail.
Inch by inch, Victor repeated his earlier movements, slowly working up the root. His arms felt like they might give way at any moment from the strain.
“You can do it!” Titus called.
Victor’s fingers brushed against Marshal’s. The silent boy dropped onto his stomach and reached as far as he could, still holding the root with his other hand. Victor swung himself upward and reached. Marshal grasped his hand, but couldn’t hold it. Victor slipped loose and screamed as all his weight hung from one hand. It slid another inch and splinters cut into his palm.
He swung himself up again, not sure if he could make it. This time, Marshal caught his hand and held on. They hung there for a moment. Then Marshal began to pull. Victor pulled back, then lunged upward to catch a higher spot on the root with his other hand. A few moments later, Marshal pulled his hand up over the lip of the ledge. In a few more moments, Victor struggled onto the ledge himself and lay still. Safe.
“Theon’s pillars!” Titus said. Standing down below, his face was almost even with Victor’s, lying on the ledge. “I can’t believe… Theon’s pillars!”
Victor turned his head and leaned on his elbow. It shook with fatigue. He looked back at Marshal. “Thank you.”
“Who would have thought? The Curse Boy saved your life!” Titus looked from one to the other, then his eyes widened. “He saved your life,” he repeated. “That means…”
Victor let his head drop down onto the rock again. “Devouring fire!” he whispered.
Victor looked across their meager camp at Marshal, sound asleep. Though he had been immensely grateful to the other boy for saving his life, for ten years he had resented the Bond it created between them. That resentment included Marshal himself.
Who would have ever guessed Marshal would drag him off on this grand adventure they were having now? Sure, it had hurt to leave behind his home, friends, family. But that faded over time. He could barely remember Careen’s face now. He frowned. That wasn’t right. But he had gotten to fight monsters, meet magical beings, and learn how to wield a sword. He wouldn’t trade all this for the world itself.
When Marshal disappeared into the Otherworld, the Bond between them had become a painful thing. When Marshal encountered any kind of danger, Victor always knew, always felt a pull, sometimes physical in nature. But this had been different. The pull couldn’t pinpoint a direction most of the time Marshal was gone. At times, Victor felt pulled in every direction. It felt like his insides were going to explode out of his chest. He couldn’t rest, barely slept.
But now Marshal was back, escaping the danger. The Bond had faded away. Victor felt immense relief to have his friend back. Because that’s what Marshal was now: his friend. A better friend than he’d ever had. And now his curse had been lifted! The possibilities for both of them were infinite. Marshal might very well become the Lord of Varioch! And Victor…
He lowered his head. During Marshal’s Otherworld venture, the other thing had faded. But now, now it was back. Victor hadn’t mentioned it to anyone yet. He had no idea what to think. But being around Marshal for so long seemed to be changing him. That had to be the reason.
Victor lifted his hand before his face and watched.
His fingers vibrated.