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The Cursed Man opening chapter

Sun, 12th March 2017

I thought that I would post part of the opening chapter from THE CURSED MAN this weekend, just so anyone interested could give it a quick read. This is still work in progress, so may contain typos. Enjoy.

* * *

Chapter 1

It was difficult for Duncan to say what shocked Nadine more. The fact that he had come barging into the Half Moon Inn so late, soaked to the bone, and hardly able to stand, or that the man that was supporting him was the captain of the Watch. In all likelihood, it was the fact that she had just been hosting an after hours lock-in, and had neglected to bolt the front door. Three men seated around one table looked up from their drinks, but otherwise did not react to the pair's arrival.

Duncan met Nadine's eyes, seeing her initial look of shock turn to one of concern at the sight of the messenger. Duncan tried to mouth an apology, but was shaking and shivering too much even for that. Indeed, Duncan's shaking legs were threatening to drop him to the ground once more. The captain of the Watch seemed to sense it too, reaffirming his grip around the man he had carried here from the river, and hauled him upright.

"Says he knows you," the captain said.

"He does," Nadine said, setting down the cloth she had been wiping down the counter with, and coming around to assist. Together the two struggled the messenger into the inn.

"No, not there," Nadine said, as the Watch captain made for the nearest seat, "over by the fire."

"What happened?" Nadine asked, once Duncan was settled into a seat.

"Found him in the river," the captain said. "Thought he was about to drown. Been this way ever since I pulled him out. Not sure what's wrong with him. Was only able to tell me to bring him here, to you." The watch captain looked over the shivering messenger again.

"I can take things from here, Pierce," Nadine said to the Watch captain.

"You should get him a physician," Pierce started.

"He's fine," Nadine said, "it's the shock, nothing more. I will take care of him. It's not the first time I've seen him like this. You should get back to work."

Pierce considered things for a moment longer, before conceding. "I will want to speak to him when he's better, so I can find out all the details," Pierce said, as he made for the door.

"I'll send him your way," Nadine promised.

Pierce paused at the front door, looking over the three old men who remained in their seats, sipping their beers, and spectating the entire event without even pretending to offer their assistance. He then made his way out, gesturing for the landlady to lock the door this time around.

Nadine did so, and then returned to Duncan's side. She tossed more fuel onto the fire. "Duncan," she said kneeling down next to him. "Are you all right? What happened to you?" She stoked the fire, to encourage the flames to rise and take the wood.

"Mugged," Duncan finally managed through chattering teeth. "Jumped into the river."

Nadine put a hand on the messenger's forehead, feeling how icy cold his skin was.

"I will draw you a hot bath," Nadine said. "Stay here."

"Not going anywhere," Duncan said.

Duncan remained sitting before the fire as the landlady disappeared, shivering, and willing the fire to warm him quicker. His wet clothes weren't helping matter, but he was not going to strip off here. Despite the encouragement given them by Nadine, the flames remained low in the hearth. It far from the roaring fire that Duncan would have preferred. But at the height of summer, there wasn't much call for such a hearty fireplace.

"Are you all right there, friend?" one of the men seated nearby finally asked.

Duncan nodded.

"You're shaking a bit there," one of the others observed.

"Just shock," Duncan managed, without turning to them.

"Someone decided to send you on a midnight swim? Didn't try and weigh you down, did they?"

Duncan shook his head, and concentrated on the fire, hugging himself, and trying to control his shivering. The pain was the worst part, always was. He could see that his hands were near-porcelain white, the blood having nearly drained from them completely. He didn't need a mirror to know that his face would look the same. His eyes, too, could well have lost their colour, and now be a dull grey. The hair on his head may well have followed suit. Pierce had passed no comment, however, so either he had not noticed, or the water had not been cold enough to trigger the reaction. He was glad that the three men had not come over to investigate any closer. It would hopefully mean fewer questions later.

Nadine soon returned, striding over to Duncan. "Right, come on. Let's get you into that bath." She hauled the messenger up, and led him to the backrooms, where the inn's single bathtub resided. The tub was steaming, hot water having already been poured into it. Nearby, more water was being heated.

"Get undressed and get in," Nadine instructed. He tone indicated that she didn't have time for arguments.

Duncan fiddled pathetically at his clothes. The numbness of his fingers was preventing him from undoing the buttons of his tunic, or the belt of his trousers. After a few moments, Nadine assisted, leaving Duncan to handle just his undergarments by himself.

"I'll be back in a moment," Nadine said, picking up the wet clothes Duncan had dropped in a heap on the floor. "I'll put these out to dry, and see what clean clothes I have to fit you."

Duncan slipped into the tub with a satisfied groan. The shivering subsided a little, as did the pain, but he knew it would still be some time before the effects wore off, and he returned to normal. Despite it being deep and wide enough for him to stretch out in, Duncan sat hunched in the waters, arms hugged about himself. It was just more comfortable that way.

He became aware a little while later that Nadine had returned. She was looking over him, seeing the way he was all gathered up. "Is it hot enough?" she asked. She dipped her fingers into the water, and withdraw them swiftly, as the water scalded them.

"Hot enough," Duncan said.

Nadine took up a bucket that sat next to the tub, scooped up water, and poured it over Duncan's head. This she did several more times until Duncan warmed enough to unfurl himself, and lay back in the tub.

"Thank you," he said. He was starting to find it easier to talk again.

"I will check back on you in a little while," Nadine said. "I just need to check the three old boys aren't helping themselves to the barrels." She then knelt down next to Duncan, cupping the messenger's face in her hands, and looking him in the eyes. "Duncan, I don't know what happened tonight, but please promise me that you will be more careful. If you aren't, your secret will out, and ... well."

Duncan followed Nadine's eyes to the incomplete amulet he wore around his neck.

"Just one more piece to find," he said.

"I hope you find it soon." Nadine rose. "If you need anything, shout."

Duncan nodded, and Nadine left him to recover. It was a hot night, and so the bath did not cool as fast as it might have otherwise, and soon enough Duncan felt the warmth seep back into his bones. The feeling returned to his fingers, and the colour to his skin. The shivering lessened, as did the pain, and his breathing became easier. A short while later, he was feeling like his old self once more, like a normal man again. Or as normal as he could get. A mirror rested on the floor next to the wooden tub. He picked it up and peered into it, seeing that his eyes had returned to their original deep blue.

He sighed and lay back. It had been quite a while since anything this bad had happened to him. He could only hope there wouldn't be many more. He took hold of the circular amulet, fingering the three pieces that he had so far recovered, and the empty quarter that had yet to be found.

"How much longer am I going to have to keep doing this?" he said quietly to himself. Days he wished for, months even. Decades would be testing. Centuries? He would rather die. But the curse wouldn't let him, and had tormented him for all this time. He closed his hand around the amulet, concentrating on it, trying to feel even the most subtle of movement. But he felt nothing, the amulet remaining as still as it had in years.

Centuries more was a definite possibility.

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