Even over the sound of the falling rain outside, splashing into the puddles in the dirt road and spattering on the thatched roof of his home, he could hear his wife's muffled weeping from the bedroom.
So long he had hoped, Ticar thought to himself. So long he had hoped, and prayed, and waited - even serving that position which no one envied, in hopes that his devotion would be recognized - and now that their fondest wish had come true...
The midwife had taken the child from her when she grew hysterical, and now it lay wrapped, almost invisible, in the blankets the village women had woven in preparation for the long-awaited event; it was truly a blessing from the spirits that Diola would bear a child at last, at her age. But, thought Ticar, when they found out what had happened, they would take back their gifts. Instead of a blessing had come a curse, and upon the village rather than only his household.
He lifted the child from its cradle, and it stirred slightly in slumber as he pushed the wrappings back from the forehead, still red and new. His fingers brushed over the wisps of downy dark hair to his son's temple, and back past the ear, to rub over the tiny but unmistakable nubs of horn.
He was at least grateful that they were still small, or his son might have torn Diola during his birth. If he was to lose Diola, what would his life be? For he knew as well as anyone, in more detail than most, what would have to become of his newborn son.
A heavier splashing outside pulled him from thoughts of years long past; the sound of hooves in the street. He had forgotten, in all the turmoil of Diola's labor and the trauma that followed, that this was the third new moon of the rains.
Having carefully covered his son's head once more, leaving only the tiny pink nose and pursed lips visible beneath the blankets, Ticar opened his door for the traveler.- - - - -
Ticar had never gotten a true glimpse of the traveler's face, for he remained buried deep within layers of cloaks and scarves even while sitting crosslegged on one of the mats before the fire, as he was now. His clothes were not particularly unusual for the season, and were of a weave that could have been made by the village women. He knew of their customs, and his voice held no foreign accent when he spoke - it sounded much like his own, but young. Even so, he was an outsider, there was no doubt.
He had appeared in the pouring rain for the first time five years before, at the new moon on the darkest night of the year, and asked for shelter till morning. None had offered aside from Ticar, and most had thought him a fool for doing so. This past year, the villagers seemed to have a change of heart, when Diola put forth the idea that they were to be blessed with a child at last for the sake of Ticar's kindness.
If the curse was the result of his hospitality, however, Ticar would offer the traveler a night's warmth and rest once more; there was little more the spirits could do to him. And once word spread of what had taken place that evening, the traveler would find no shelter beneath another roof.
The traveler seemed aware of the somber mood, though Ticar could not see his expression, and Diola had mercifully fallen asleep. He said nothing, aside from thanking Ticar for the warm meal and the shelter for himself, his horse, and his companion. There was another person, perhaps a servant, who came with the traveler each year - smaller and thinner beneath the layers of clothing, with a grace that suggested it was likely a woman - but his companion always seemed to prefer staying in the stable with the horse, and the traveler never said a word about the matter, whether to name her wife, sister, daughter, or concubine.
There was a question he asked each year, however, and Ticar dreaded it this year more than ever, for the answer would be yes.- - - - -
They had thought it had ended nearly a decade ago, when men had gone to the cliffs and seen from afar that the walls and towers of the ancient castle had fallen, leaving only dust and rubble and brackish water. Ticar had walked that path only days before, peering out at the caves and the carven stone walkways through the holes in the mask of the Blood Priest. He'd lifted the boy in his arms, placing him inside the crypt and tightening the restraints on the small hands, then closing the door against young, confused eyes. Those eyes and those hands had haunted him, and it had been a relief to know that the boy's death had most likely come more quickly than he'd expected.
As for the village, they had brought in a good crop that year, and little wind came with the rains. It was the same the year following, and the year after that - it seemed that with that final sacrifice, the curse had been broken for good. Ticar had been glad, for although he'd volunteered for the task in hopes of pleasing the spirits, he had not enjoyed it. Thoughts of the boy's dismayed expression haunted him still, and he did not want to see such a thing again.
His son's eyes had opened earlier, staring into space with the unfocused sight of an infant, and all Ticar could see was that hurt look of betrayal. Tiny hands clasped around one finger, and all Ticar could imagine was the restraints snapping into place around the small wrists. It was absurd, for he had gone to look at the ruined castle, and he knew with certainty that they could no longer sacrifice in the same way as they had in years past. But the winds had increased just in the hours since the child's birth, even toppling one of the storehouses - and so it was proved that the sacrifice must someday be made.
Ticar was lost in dark thought as the traveler finished his meal, and then startled him by asking the question.- - - - -
Covered as the traveler was, Ticar could not see his expression as he looked down at the sleeping infant, and the soft sigh from deep within the cloaks might have been only his imagination. The traveler reached down to touch the tiny exposed nose with one gentle finger, pushed the blankets from over the eyes, which squinted tighter shut in sudden protest at the disturbance. Ticar did not object as the traveler loosened the blankets further, revealing the two small bumps above the child's ears. The child stirred, uttering a thin wail as the cool air touched his scalp, but quieted quickly enough under the traveler's hand, which stroked over the thin hair and caressed the barely-formed horns in a manner that did not suggest the least bit of aversion from the manifestation of the curse.
A slight noise behind him caused Ticar to turn away from the unusual scene; he found Diola risen from her bed, pale and leaning heavily upon the doorway she now peered out from within. She looked more weary than concerned, and Ticar went to take his wife by the arms, helping her back to her bed, and reassuring her that nothing was wrong, all was well; she needed to rest now. She looked older than she had just that morning - even while he settled her back into her blankets, the firelight from the other room showed lines in her face that lent weight to the traces of grey that had begun to form in her hair in the few years past.
Upon returning, Ticar had a moment of fright as he realized that the door was open wide, and the traveler was gone; his son, however, remained in the cradle.
When he returned, leading his smaller companion by the hand, their conversation was brief.- - - - -
The woman was pale beneath the layers of damp cloth she peeled away from her head, but with eyes deeper and darker than any woman even of Ticar's village, liquid and shimmering in the firelight. Her face held a look of distracted, almost perplexed wonder as the infant in her arms gurgled and wriggled, reaching one small fist up to brush at the hair that hung to her chin. The traveler still had not named her connection to him, though Ticar suspected by now that he knew.
As for his own wife, Diola had cried as she agreed to the proposal, clutching the little boy tight to her chest for the first and last time. Even so, she whispered her thanks to the traveler over and over as Ticar took the child from her at last, placing him in the strange young woman's arms.
"No harm will come to him?"
Ticar stood by the fire with the traveler, who nodded, his eyes fixed upon the woman and child. "I'll raise him as my own."
"I would have also."
The traveler turned slightly, perhaps to look at Ticar, though Ticar could not see for certain. After a moment, he nodded in understanding. "I'll take him far away from this place. There won't be any need for a sacrifice."
The woman ran her slim white fingers lightly over the pink skin of the infant's head, alighting them upon one tiny budding horn with a surprisingly fond gesture, and then turned her head to the traveler with a strange, questioning look. In a rare moment that Ticar had seen few times in the years the traveler had come, he let the firelight touch his face just a little as he leaned forward, enough for Ticar to see lips set in a sun-darkened face, as they kissed the woman on the forehead softly.
Without a word, she pulled the child's wrappings tighter, and went to the door. The traveler turned to go also, then hesitated. "You are a kind man." His back was turned, and Ticar was not sure what to say, so he simply murmured his thanks.
The traveler again hesitated, making no move to leave, and Ticar began to feel slightly uneasy. Finally, the traveler spoke again. "The castle's purpose was destroyed with she who lived there. Or you might say that it was fulfilled. Any more sacrifices would be useless. In another generation, they might forget the ritual... but not yet. Let the legends die."
Though still wondering how the traveler knew of the sacrifice and the ritual, as he had wondered for many years, Ticar nodded. The traveler spoke with authority, and Ticar felt inclined to believe him.
"As for those who were sacrificed," the traveler continued, "their souls are now at rest. They've forgiven you."
Having finished, the traveler followed the woman outside into the rain, where their horse was waiting, and suddenly Ticar's desperate curiosity overcame him. Stepping into the doorway himself, he halted the traveler one last time. "Who are you?" he asked. "Are you a spirit?"
The traveler looked at him through the rain and the pale light from the village lamps swinging overhead in the storm. It caught his face just for a moment, painting it young and most ordinary beyond the folds of soaked cloth and the dripping water, as he spoke with a slight smile. "No, I'm not."
For the first time, Ticar saw the traveler's eyes, and what he saw made him freeze. He stood silent, watching as the traveler helped the woman onto their mount, carefully handed the child up to her, and led the horse off through the dark, wet streets of the village.
That night as he lay in bed, he dreamed of the dark eyes of a boy once more, but they no longer haunted him.