The Golden Curse Chapter Two

By the dim light of a fireplace, an eye was watching. It had grown weary of scanning the darkened corners for imagined spies and enemies, and was now merely staring forward in a glassy gaze, reflecting the state of the mind behind the eye.

That mind was recalling recent events, played out in continuous repetition, in hopes of gleaning some clue previously overlooked to help resolve the difficult situation at hand. This bright but impatient and sometimes violent mind had lately come in contact with new people, from the crafty but cantankerous cobbler of last Thursday to the burly but benevolent jewel merchant of this evening. This mind had also come into indirect contact with other minds, and even sensed the mastermind behind them. Less lofty or crafty, but no less violent, their battle of mental wits had paralleled the physical race to be first to win a great prize.

The prize gleamed in the mind's eye- a coin of beaten gold, round and smooth. There was not much to distinguish it from other coins floating around the baronies- on the head side was the image of a two-headed eagle with its talons gripping a serpent, and on the tail side was its value and country of origin though there was no date. Of little monetary worth in itself, it held great secrets, and the more it eluded the grasp of its pursuers the more legendary the potency of its whispered powers became. Who would be the first to stumble in this race? The mind in the dark steeled itself against the thought of failure, and the eye moved to watch the fire.

In the shadows there was a hint of movement, and the muffled sound of an object moved and pitched a short distance. The fire brightened, and the eye became part of a face, and a figure. The figure was smallish, like a little boy, with a face etched from a lifetime's worth of experience and care that ensured he could never be mistaken for a child. Brown hair covered the left side of his face in a tangled mass, and he was dressed in elegant but muted finery (which in this locality would still be called gaudy) of a smokey grey shirt with conservative lace embroidery complimented by a coat and vest of wine-colored satin. Ordinarily he liked to wear red pants, but tonight they were black, and they were tucked into knee-high boots. His boots he liked to polish when he was in public, but tonight they were caked with mud, for he had outside business earlier that evening, and it was dirty work. Though he was considered an outlaw among his own people and would be killed on sight, he was bred of a well-respected family and he had an image to uphold, so he began to scrub off his boots and put them back into a presentable state. His people were the Kobolds, and his name was Altenglisch Hans Cuxhaven.

That work had been profitable, however. Alteng had learned the name of the merchant who had acquired the coin (by barter) from the local cobbler. He knew the fate of the coin after it had been set as a trinket among other trinkets into a bracelet (which also would be considered gaudy in this town), and how an old woman, whose name would be inadvertently left off of her gravestone a few years later, came to barter for the piece of jewelry by giving up a case of old silverware, so she could advertise what wealth remained to her by wearing it in public. Finally, Aleng had learned how he was not the first to be curious about that coin, and how a "gentleman caller in grey" had come to the merchant only three days before to inquire on its whereabouts.

Now Alteng was tired, and dirty. There had been a tense moment when he was close to being discovered by undesirables during his investigation and, since he did not have the authority of the constabulary to make such matters his own official business, he was forced to beat a hasty retreat. There had been no violence, but he once misjudged the distance in a leap from one rooftop to another. Though he had fallen and landed on his feet uninjured, he found himself planted in an alley filled with soft mud, and he sank almost knee-high in it. After extricating himself, he managed to make it back to the inn without incident, though a few people in the common room gave him derisive humorous looks, as if the kid had come home late after getting caught playing in a mud puddle. It was a sight worthy of a free drink from the innkeeper's daughter though, and he grudgingly accepted her pity, but gladly accepted the drink.

Now he sat in the darkened room, quite warmed by the fire, for the night was chill and promised rain by morning. His traveling partners were absent when he dragged himself down the hall and into their room. Deutsch, his charming and sometimes wayward brother, had been sent on a reconnaissance errand by Alteng. Since he knew he would be out on a chill damp night, Deutsch stated his desire to go out on the town after the business was done, and Alteng had fully expected him to charm the citizens out of their wits wherever he went. But his wife had also apparently gone out for the night and he had not expected that, and he was growing anxious about the hour (and the manner) of her return.

Time slowly passed, and it was now several hours after nightfall. The inn was still very much open and was serving food at this hour. Alteng thought about going out to get a leg of lamb from the kitchen, and was just starting to salivate for it, when there was a hearty tapping at the window. Pulling himself up out of the deep chair, he crossed the room and undid the latch, not doubting for a second that it was Narrinda's womanly rapping on the sill which he had heard many times before. She was unusual after all, and she often drew the most attention of the three of them, and very seldom was the attention wanted, so she had learned long ago to avoid coming through main entrances where her true nature would be most fully revealed to all.

He was relieved when she returned without a bloodthirsty mob at her heels (for a change), but when he saw Deutsch his face grew concerned, and he had to help Narrinda drag him inside. They put him in the chair and Narrinda had to remove his shirt to see the damage. Alteng stoked the fire and lit candles so that the room was now adequately lit for them to examine him. Narrinda told Alteng of everything she saw. At first Alteng was tempted to verbally peel his brother's flesh off for his foolhardy reaction to the old woman's mugging by Schmutz and his friends, but he soon realized that he might have done the same thing. Though he would be loath to admit it, quiet pride swelled inside him to know that his brother was not merely trying to act like him in some sort of aping or mockery, but was bound to follow that certain unwritten code of conduct that befitted a Cuxhaven.

Narrinda's voice was low and urgent. "Should we go find a human doctor?" she asked Alteng.

Alteng gave her a troubled look. "Those leeches?" he replied. "They're still living in the Dark Ages. They'd try to saw him in half over a pin-prick! No, let us do what we can for him. Do you have it in you to help me patch him up?"

"I don't know. I'll try to recall what I know. But even if I can heal him, he's going to be sore for a while. Did you learn any emergency surgery from your brother-in-law?"

Alteng held up his hand, along with his hook. "Look at me," he said, "what do you think?"

Narrinda became impatient to be working. "It never stopped William," she snapped. "What about some of his herbology? Did he show you anything helpful for healing wounds with plant extracts? I know some, but my stores are old and they may have lost their potency."

"What I know, I taught myself. I might have some leaves from the New World we can use, but they've stayed with me through several voyages and they are most likely stale by now. Get in my black pouch and use the leaves with serrated edges. I'll go to the kitchen and get some towels and hot water. Be back soon."

In about three minutes Alteng returned not only with the water and towels, but with the innkeeper himself, along with his cook. Everyone crowded around Deutsch and there was much bustling about. Borsch the innkeeper was trying to persuade them to get Deutsch to a doctor, but Alteng absolutely would have none of it. He did accept a bucket full of rags to use for wrapping and binding Deutsch's wounds, and Borsch offered his daughter's services for stitching (she frequently mended clothes on the side). Narrinda had said nothing, because she lay hidden in the chest at the foot of the bed so that the guests wouldn't become frightened.

Deutsch was semi-conscious through all of this, and he tried to speak several times but in the general conversation between the other three he was ignored. But it didn't matter much because they soon gathered over him and Borsch asked "Did you get to see who did this to you?"

It took a few minutes for Deutsch to articulate everything he needed to. Meanwhile the cook Karl had gotten everything prepared and had gone back out front to get needles and thread so Alteng could attempt to close an ugly gash on Deutsch's left forearm.

"I think I know a couple of those fellows" Borsch announced. "Klaus Eingold and his cousin Hermann Schmutz. Young Klaus is a reckless sort, always causing trouble and many folk think he frequents the highways now and then. Schmutz is a digger of graves, got a good job. I don't know why he'd be in on this, but Klaus will be behind it you can be sure. Did they take your valuables, young man?"

"No," Deutsch answered slowly, "but they robbed an old woman of her jewelry and I tried to stop it."

"Well I'd say you did right, though maybe it doesn't feel like it right now. But why didn't you just find a constable? You got a good description and I don't think they would have gotten far. The town is almost too small to hide in."

Deutsch cast a quick sidelong glance at Alteng, who had begun to tightly grip the side of the chair. He could tell that Alteng didn't like where the conversation was headed. After a few seconds of thought, Deutsch replied "I didn't see any around, and all I could think about was acting fast before the woman got hurt."

That seemed to satisfy the innkeeper and the cook, and Alteng relaxed his grip and let out his breath. He didn't want Deutsch to say too much right now. Now Alteng broke into the talk and managed to persuade the owner and his help that he now needed privacy and absolute quiet to work, but he would most likely be willing to spend lots of money on food and drink when the work here was done, so could they please have a leg of lamb ready for him in an hour, thank you and goodbye. The word 'money' of course cheered Borsch up, and he left them with kind words and his promise to tell the patrons in the common room to keep the noise down because there was a doctor at work in the house. Alteng gave a grin as they left- he'd never been called a doctor before. It sounded good coming out of Borsch.

A few seconds after Alteng locked the door, Narrinda popped out of the trunk like a jack-in-the-box. As Alteng laid out the towels and instruments, she hovered behind him with the demeanor of a little storm cloud. "Deutsch" she said, "you know you can trust Alteng to patch you up. He's really good with a needle when he has to be. Just don't watch him while he's working on you, it makes him nervous."

Deutsch actually managed to laugh. "No, I don't want to make a one-handed doctor nervous when he's using pointy objects on me."

He turned away his head and closed his eyes, ready to feel the first pinprick of pain, though that was still a few minutes off. Alteng was soon ready, and he turned back to Deutsch. "Just relax and have a drink" he said. "Have several if you want. Makes the time go faster for you. If you have enough drinks, you won't even know I'm stitching you up. This shouldn't hurt much."

"Yes, just announce what you're going to do to me because the thought of a needle in your claws makes me feel so much better already."

"Well, we can do this a quicker way." Alteng went over to the fireplace and grabbed a fresh log of wood. "Just let me knock you out with this and you won't have to worry about it."

"Maybe I was better off with a human doctor" Deutsch mumbled.

Given his few options, Deutsch chose to take the drinks. It didn't take long for him to become happily oblivious to the fact that Alteng was about to run the risk of implanting him with an ugly scar for the rest of his life. Happily for him, Narrinda decided that a woman's touch was needed and she helped keep Deutsch's arm steady and cleaned the wound while Alteng sewed away, and for a one-handed job it didn't turn out all that bad after twenty minutes.

"Deutsch just told me I'm beautiful" Narrinda said to Alteng as they finished and began to clean up.

"Poor chap" Alteng replied, "He won't even remember saying it."

"But I'll remember, and that's the point" she said. "When's the last time you told me I was beautiful?"

"You know beauty's only skin deep my dear, of which you have none."

Narrinda felt at that moment like a little operation (with more needles and maybe a rusty axe) might do Alteng some good.