If he can lay his family’s curse to rest, his children will have a better life than he did. But he has yet to understand the full extent of the familial curse.
The old oilskin had been cold and greasy to the touch when he’d put it on, but now as the wind dug icy claws into his skin and sought the cracks in his clothes, he was thankful for it. The old castle loomed above him, dark even against the blackened sky, and before him lay the path. At least, what little of the path could be seen in the flickering lantern light.
Hefting the bag strapped to his back, the man gripped his scratched and weather-worn staff tighter and began to climb, using the wooden pole to compensate for sight as the rising storm ate away what little visibility the light granted. As his lantern guttered and died, he was left with naught but the feel of the path beneath his feet and the dim silvery gleam of the old seal ring tied to the top of his staff. He half wondered if he might lose it here. If it were thrown by a calloused hand into the night, would it return once more, or would it be satisfied, this close to the great hall? He didn’t know, and his weary bones couldn’t bear the thought of repeating this ascent a second time. Stones rolled away underfoot, sound lost under the shrill, piercing shriek of the wind, and he drew in on himself further, a slow, silent shape plodding doggedly onwards. Upwards.
Enormous oak doors, half off their hinges and thankfully so because between frozen fingers and the sheer size of the doors he would never have been able to open them, gave him pause. Shadows lingered in the courtyard beyond, driven from the surrounding forest by the lashing rain and the wind that screamed around the stone walls.
Here. Here. Here.
The darkness whispered, and he clutched the useless lantern in a shaking hand.
Stepping inside, it felt warmer. Without the wind sinking its fangs into his bones, tension leeched from him and seeped into the looming stones. It was quieter, too, and there was a faint musty smell. Old decay, swaddling the interior and dripping from the moth-eaten tapestries and tarnished fixtures. A whiff of something sweet and pungent, like rot. His nose wrinkled, but his sodden feet continued on.
There. There. There.
The ghostly echoes whispered in his mind, mingling with the remembered whispers of the townsfolk and villagers. Everyone knew the tales, and they recognised the damnable seal. Dark magic, they said, blood pacts and demons, searching for immortality. When he was younger, he had simply laughed at their ridiculous fancies and taken what he needed, but now with the darkness encroaching and his fingers aching the weight of the ring bore down on him, heavier than any yoke. They said there was a curse, tongues wagging in the warmth of the fire and beer, bolstered by the fact that the family was in decline, now. Almost gone. And any magic, well, that was lost, too, save for the ring that found him again no matter how he tried to lose it.
Sometimes, in his darkest moments, he had wished the tales of immortality had been true. Perhaps then his sister wouldn’t have set out decades ago with only the ring and sickness eating away at her lungs. Maybe she would have laid it to rest, and it would never have come to him, if she couldn’t die.
Old bones loomed out of the darkness, but the depths of the castle weren’t as dark as he might have supposed, or perhaps hunger was making him see things that weren’t there. Familiar faces seemed to peek from behind tapestries and on the edges of hearing he swore he might have heard voices long since relegated to the dusty recesses of memory. The right seemed to glitter as he walked blindly forwards, as if it knew where it was going. Perhaps it did, for it had surely lead the rest of his family astray. But perhaps if he laid it to rest here, where it belonged, his children might not have to bear the burden of his family’s shame.
Near. Near. Near.
There was a door. He couldn’t have said for certain that he had never seen its like before, for it shared its door-like qualities with many portals throughout the land, but as he rested his hand against the wood it seemed to hum beneath his hand. The ring was warm on his finger, though he didn’t recall putting it on. But it didn’t matter now. He knew, somehow, that he was nearly there. The word home swam through his beleaguered brain, barely registering in his perception as he pushed the door open.
Warm light spilled across him and he blinked, squinting into the room against the firelight. Figures gathered around the hearth turned, conversation dwindled and stilled as he took a step over the threshold. The warmth eased the ache in his knees, and his fingers flexed around his staff, suddenly as supple as they had been at twenty.
From the fireside, a figure rose and approached him with a smile. The traveller, still dripping water, opened his mouth as if to speak, but the words got lost somewhere between his brain and his lips. He recognised the face, but not from his own memory. A portrait, some seventy years or more old now, but he saw parts of it in the mirror everyday. The beakish nose, the sparkling brown eyes. He’s gotten his mother’s cheeks and her ears, thankfully, because his father’s ears were… unfortunate.
“I see you brought the ring,” smiled his father, looking twenty years old and embracing him with enthusiasm fit to make his ribs creak. “Took you a while there, my boy.”
From the couches, his sister waved him over, face flushed with warmth rather than fever, her cheeks full and eyes sparkling. He stepped forwards slowly, hardly daring to breathe, but she grabbed his hand and pulled him down next to her. She was warm and heavy and real against him, and he felt a smile spread over his face as other family members crowded round to greet him. As he reached out to shake the hand of someone claiming to be his grandmother, the ring vanished from his finger, and for a brief moment he knew it was now sitting on his daughter’s bedside table. His sister nudged him in the ribs, leaning close to give him a hug.
“Welcome home, brother.”