I heard talk of making me Chieftain. I wanted no part of this. I had other plans. No one felt happy with my decision.
Oran, who’d harbored ambitions of Christianizing the entire Marmorca clan in the wake of Valsalvas’ death and our repelling of the Romans, now felt he had to abandon those aspirations, or postpone them, in order to pursue his primary loyalty to me. I tried to dissuade him, to no avail.
“Where you go, I go,” he insisted.
Dalmontenes, the only other candidate for Chieftain other than me, stepped into the position with satisfaction enough—I suspected he had wanted to take over as Chieftain of the Marmorca for some time—but he still protested my leaving.
“I had intended to make a sailor out of you!” he said.
“Perhaps that will yet happen,” I told him, “if I return.”
For her part, Samaethea wept when she heard the news. “I wish that you would stay,” she pleaded.
“I cannot,” I said. I could not. Not when I knew that a potential cure to my Lycanthropy existed. If the potion administered to me by Valsalvas, the potion he had obtained from the “witch” deeper inland, had proven capable of preventing my transformations into the Doghead, might not a regular, managed dosage offer a means to escape the curse for the entirety of my life? I saw no reason why this should not prove so. I had to have more of that potion.
Elsora did not weep on the day of my departure, but I saw regret in her eyes. “Your home will be waiting for you,” was all she said.
For better or ill, the Marmorca were my people now. A better people, too, under the rule of Dalmontenes. I had persuaded him to release all the slaves in the village; granted, the majority of them chose to remain with the clan, stepping into the void left by those Marmorca killed during the raid of the Romans, supplementing the loss. And none mourned for Valsalvas, as dead tyrants are seldom mourned. The Marmorca would grow again in number, and grow strong. I knew I would be welcome among them when—if—I came home.
But first things must be put first.
We rounded up four men, the only ones still alive out of the contingent Valsalvas had taken with him when he had gone to visit the witch. These four remembered the way. They swore loyalty to Dalmontenes, and to me, in exchange for their lives. Dalmontenes sent six others to accompany us, ten men in total, not counting Oran and me. Dalmontenes also gave me one of the little Roman ships to sail downriver.
“Bring it back to me in one piece, if you can,” he said. “And yourself.”
A week after our routing of the Romans, I and my little crew set sail inland. It had taken me that long to heal from the gashes made by the Roman swords. Elsora had found it necessary to stitch up the worst of them with twine. They itched something terrible and I ran a fever for three days, a reminder that even as a Doghead I could suffer injury and sickness.
The farther from the coast we sailed the hotter it grew, more humid. More and more insects, mosquitoes and other biting pests, plagued us. The scented grease we rubbed on our skins as repellant only somewhat diminished their appetites. The men kept to having torches lit, even in the daytime, so that the smoke would help keep the swarm away. Thus we were a crew reeking of spices from the grease on our skins, sweat, burning pitch and wood smoke.
The only thing pleasant about our journey was the wind, blowing southward, that kept the single sail of the little vessel filled and kept us from having to use the oars. Not a strong wind, but we made good time.
“The witch lives not far from the riverbank,” one of the men told me, one of the four to have accompanied Valsalvas on his trip. “Not more than two days downriver.”
I had brought payment for the old woman, coins taken from the Romans. What use the witch, living alone, removed from the society of men and the comforts said society could provide, might have for gold I did not know. But the men assured me Valsalvas had paid her with the same. I would have paid her any price, short of my own soul or the lives of those close to me, for the cure to Lycanon’s curse.
The terrain changed, a little at a time, as we progressed downriver. The forests growing on either side of the river grew thicker, more fecund. Green vines dangled like snakes from the sagging limbs of the trees that reached out, hanging low, over the water. We heard the shrill cries of birds, saw little flashes of color amidst the dull green as these fluttered their wings to display their bright plumage. We heard the chattering of monkeys. Every once in a while we would pass a slothful crocodile, lying fat and grinning on the riverbank, watching our passing, malevolent, fearful, or hungry.
It rained a little, a tender trilling on the surface of the river like distant drums, accompanied by thunder rumbling low along the ridges of the forest canopy. The clouds, a patchwork of rotten gray that swelled and shrank, never offered us protection from the scorching sun for long at a time.
Valsalvas had often left the village on raids, hunting, or on other business known only to himself, so his absence when he’d gone off in search of the witch hadn’t been noted as anything out of the ordinary. This told me he had not traveled far. Yet it seemed to me we must have sailed half the length of the unmapped continent before we at last reached our destination. It would take, although I could not have known it then, far, far longer for me to return home again.