A Curse Afield | Joy Pixley

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Harra's legs complained about the hill, but she trudged on at a steady pace. In two decades of wandering this countryside, she'd learned: that's how you get somewhere. First you start, and then you keep going. Now, where she was getting to? That, she didn't know yet, although she could guess. Another struggling field, another worried village. They ran together like mud in the rain after so many.

The warm breeze tickled her arms and tried to lift the wide-brimmed hat shielding her face. A beautiful day, tinged with the odor of disease. She'd been seeing patches of it for days. The old trees resisted it, but the grasses and wild fields slumped, unable to fight back. It was probably a mundane infestation, as usual. Once she found the center, she'd know better. She hoped for something surprising, something challenging for a change, something worth the journey.

As she crested the rise, a valley of farmland appeared. Green plants, brown dirt. From this distance, it seemed normal, but her practiced eye noted the withering, the corn stalks half as tall as they should be.

Her knees, traitors that they were, complained again at walking downslope. Concentrating on avoiding holes and stones, she didn't notice the man in the field until she was almost upon him. He'd already spotted her, so it was too late for hiding. Too bad; she was good at hiding. These days, she got enough practice. The roads had been safer when she started this path; the people kinder, the greetings friendlier.

But she was also good at judging people, by how they walked, how they held their arms, what angle they looked at the world from. This one seemed wary, but not aggressive. A regular-aged man--by which she meant, her age--his brown beard flecked with white, a farmer's simple clothes.

He picked his way to the road.

She pulled the necklace of acorns from under her shirt. It was her one piece of armor, announcing that she had something valuable to trade, and was not as defenseless as she seemed. She tried to look strong, moving her walking staff lightly, not leaning on it despite her fatigue. When they were close enough to talk without shouting, she stopped.

He glanced at her necklace. "You're Nebyn?"

His eyes scrunched with skepticism. She knew he would prefer a man. They all would. But she was the one who had come. Harra often skipped the formal response, but no: this man would need it. "I honor Nebyn. I serve Nebyn. I am Nebyn."

"Come." He walked away, assuming she'd follow. She did.

With fields close on both sides now, the stench filled her head, turning her nose, her stomach. She wondered how he could stand it.

On a corner pole, a nature charm crumpled as if several years' dead, although it must be from this spring's sowing ritual. She stretched up. The bundle of brown leaves greened at her touch, unwrinkling, undrooping. Not completely, though, and not as fast as it should have. That was disturbing. And interesting.

The man was waiting.

She refused to hurry. Compromising, she talked as she caught up. "How long ago did this start?"

He chewed his cheek, gazed into the distance. "Crops came up slow right off. Didn't see the white rot until about three weeks ago."

"Which crops are affected?"

"All of them." He resumed walking, signaling the end of the conversation.

That wasn't right. Most other crops resisted white rot. It must be a witcher curse. The saliva pooled in her mouth at the thought. She spat. Nebyn's natural enemy, witchers were--using godless magic for evil purposes, lashing out against their enemies, making the harvest worse for everyone. Maybe she'd get to root out a hidden witcher on this trip, expose their sins.

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