Steam rose from the bowl Zsófia clutched close to her chest. The initial thrill of adventure she’d felt for leaving the village and the forest had shrunk to embers and been replaced in prominance by nervous fear. Always, the world outside the forest had felt like a dream to her and walking into a dream was a frightening concept.
That morning only Pan and Vahkragg were around to share the meal. The larger man fresh from drilling with his monstrous pole-axe, while the smaller of the two looked as bleary eyed and sleepy as Zsófia felt. Without any conversation to be had she focused on eating her breakfast and worrying about what the day would bring when the sounds of people approaching from the forest drew her attention. As she’d expected Telfor and Pan emerged from the brush, returning from their clandestine conversation.
“Zsófia,” the old grey man’s voice carried a tone of command that set her immediately on edge, “Rubin was afflicted with a Malediction last night, as the only sorcerer present unless you can prove your innocence I will be forced to arrest you until such a time as we are safe and free to hold an investigation and trial.”
The accusation struck through the camp like a cleave of Vahkragg’s axe. The world seemed to slow to a crawl for Zsófia who froze in place as everyone else reacted around her. Pan rose, all semblance of weariness falling away as he stood and marched over to Telfor animately demanding explanation and being met by Rubin’s bristling outrage. She sensed Vahkragg’s presence behind her without seeing or hearing the giant move and knew he would put her down the moment she sought to call upon her magic.
A light breeze whisped through the camp, carrying leaves on its breath that cut across the line drawn by Telfor’s impassionate gaze to Zsófia. She followed it’s path with her eyes as it twisted and spun on the rising heat of the campfire. Inhaling deeply, she closed her eyes held the breath in her chest until her frantic heart slowed enough for her to feel ready to speak. Slowly she rose to her feet, painfully aware of how small she looked before Vahkragg and how thin and weak her voice would sound beneath the scholar and scout’s enraged shouts.
“I was asleep in my bedroll all night.”
Telfor’s gaze kept her locked in place more firmly than she imagined even Vahkragg’s powerful grip could, she realised for the first time that the friendly old man she’d thought of him as wasn’t completely accurate. There was experience, cunning, and strength in his eyes that she hadn’t noticed before that frightened her now it was directed at her.
He lifted an arm between Rubin and Pan, quelling their argument. Rubin complying half a beat slower than Pan. As he studied her intently, she sought to stand as straight and tall as she could, offering as much defiance to this injustice as she could muster.
“Aye, I saw you turn in. But Rubin’s malediction took him during his watch, you could have waited for the rest of us to fall asleep first.”
“I could have, but I didn’t.”
Telfor’s jaw tightens in frustration, he was obviously aware of the problem.
“Conveniently the only witness who could corroborate that has already decided he’s willing to break the law to capture her.” Pan hissed the words at Rubin.
“The law demands the incarceration of all necromancers and enchanters! Oliver and I were the only ones who obeyed the law!”
“Enough!” Telfor interrupts, then turning his attention fully to Rubin, “Did you see Zsófia wake before your malediction?”
Rubin’s teeth bared involuntarily for a split second at the question, “I… no. I didn’t see Zsófia waken, but that doesn’t change anything. She could have maledicted me while feigning sleep.”
“I was genuinely asleep. I don’t know how I can prove that to you, but I was.”
“Pan, you’re the one who found Rubin. What did you see?”
“I found Rubin where he’d been seated when he started his watch, seemingly asleep in his chair.”
“I have never once fallen asleep on watch in the entire time I have travelled with you all!”
“I know,” Telfor acknowledged, “Did you try to wake him, Pan?”
“Yes, but he didn’t stir. I assumed he was exhausted from the day’s travel so I put him on his roll.”
“Could it have been a malediction?”
Pan hesitated, then clicked in annoyance, “I suppose. You know it’s indistinguishable from normal sleep until you try to wake them.”
“Are you seriously suggesting I might have lied about malediction!?”
“I wouldn’t be taking this seriously if I didn’t.” Telfor answered, drawing a hateful silence from Rubin. As the old soldier contemplated and tense stillness overtook the air, a thought occured to Zsófia.
“If I may? Rubin, what was the malediction you experienced?”
The scholar’s eyes narrowed on her in a mixture of suspicion and venom. Appearing like he intended to respond with a threat or insult rather than an answer Rubin, after a nod from Telfor, seemed to think better of it and instead filled in the camp of the paralysis and torturous spirit projection.
Zsófia recoiled in horror at the account, all her anger and indignity fled and she could only feel sympathy for the scholar as she understood the torment he’d experienced. In many ways she understood it far deeper than even he did.
“Oh Rubin, I’m so sorry!”
Her cry taking the group off guard silenced Rubin mid-speech. The three men before her look to her for further explanation.
“That wasn’t a malediction. You were chosen Rubin. The Horned God has chosen you.”
Art credit, ‘Hym’ from Gwent: The Witcher Card Game