“Very well,” I replied. “Show me.”
“This, here,” as she lifted a sack from the floor, “is ground from the bones of an animal that no longer exists. It will last you the rest of your life, as only a pinch is needed for each dosage. Take care not to lose this!”
“I will,” I said.
The woman produced a bowl—I recognized it as the upper part of a human skull—from where it had lain against the wall of the hut. She scooped with her hands a little of the bone powder out of the sack and dropped it into the bowl.
“Start with this as your base,” she told me, tying the sack closed again. Then she opened one of the little packets on her lap and poured its contents into her palm.
“Do you recognize this herb?”
“Good. You will need a good handful each month, dried and crumbled to tiny pieces.”
I knew that Elsora would see me provided with this, as much as I needed. She knew every herb and plant around our village and collected samples of most of them.
N’sua opened another package. “See this?”
“It looks like salt.”
“Salt, crushed and mixed with the dried sap of the bitterroot tree. Only a little of the sap is necessary. See? This next bit is poison,” she continued, “if taken by itself, and taken in too large a dosage. Wet the blade of a knife and stick it into the mixture. What sticks to the blade will suffice. I am giving you enough of this to last you, or to poison your entire village, if you prefer.”
As I watched the old woman work and listened to her instruction, I could only marvel at this unholy, arcane knowledge. From whence had she learned it, and how far back into the darkened past did her art extend? From how long ago came its origins? I also, for the first time, began to wonder about the mural, the depiction of Lycanon, I had seen rendered on the wall of that ancient temple. I asked about it.
“An image of Khythos,” the witch told me. “To him did I barter my soul so long ago.”
“That abandoned temple was dedicated to him?” I asked.
“As was the civilization that reared it.”
“My people,” I said, “know the figure by a different name.” I could detect, however, the similarity of the two names, Khythos and Lycanon. Which, I wondered, had given birth over time to the other, which the original?
“Khythos has many names,” the witch said to me.
“What do you know of him?” I asked.
“That he is your father, child.”
“That I already know,” I said. “Lycanon sacrificed a child to Zeus, and as punishment was transformed into a wolf. The curse extended to all the men of our country. Many of us born there suffer from it.”
A smile cracked the dry parchment of the old woman’s face. “Is that how you heard it? A simple little story told to babes at bedtime?”
“Is there another?” I asked.
“It began at the beginning,” she said. “The creator god had just formed the world out of mud and dung, and all the creatures in it. He was very proud. One day, along came the evil god, brother of the creator, who was always jealous. ‘Look, brother,’ the good god said. ‘See the things I have made.’ And he showed him the birds of the air that sing so sweet, and the flowers and the blooming plants. ‘I can do that!’ the evil brother said, and he tried to create things to match the things his brother had made. But he failed. He only could make biting insects instead of birds, that swarm and buzz but do not sing. And he made thorns and weeds, where his brother had made pretty things. ‘Look, brother,’ the creator god said again. ‘See the fine things I have made.’ And he showed his brother all the animals, and all the fish. ‘I can do that!’ the evil brother boasted, and he tried, but he created only the snakes, and the animals that kill and eat other animals, and poisonous frogs and scorpions. ‘Look, brother, at the mountains I have made, and the rivers and the great waters,’ said the good brother.”
“Let me guess,” I interrupted. “The evil brother thought he could do as well.”
N’sua cackled. “Yes! But he managed to create only fire, which destroys all things, and lightning!”
I nodded, listening.
“At last the good brother showed to the evil brother a man. ‘Look, brother,’ he said, ‘at this man I have created.’ But the evil god, he said, ‘I can do that!’ So he tried to create a man of his own. But instead he created Khythos.”
“Did he create him as a man or beast?” I asked.
“Both! And less than both! Greater, too, in strength. Khythos hated men from the first, and killed them whenever he got the chance. He took women away from the men and made children with them. His sons were almost as bad as him, and they took women from the men as well. That is why today there are so many men who are descendants of Khythos in the world. You are one of those men.”
“One of many,” I said, “damned for a thing in no way our fault.”
The old woman cackled. “Damned? You?” More cackling.
“What is so funny about that?”
“You do not know,” the witch managed, “what the fish and the birds told me about you! And the hyena!”
“What did they tell you?” I demanded.
“Oh, so you believe old N’sua now, do you? Seen enough of it for yourself, have you?”
“Just tell me what you mean!” I said.
She had gotten control of herself. “Listen, now. The potion, the powder, it will serve you well for many years. If you prepare it the right way, it will keep the beast inside of you asleep. You need not take so much of it as you were forced to eat by the other man.”
“Valsalvas,” I said.
‘One mouthful a week for the four weeks between each of the times the moon completes a phase will suffice. At first.”
“What do you mean ‘at first,’ old woman?”
“As time passes, the beast inside you will grow stronger. It will take more of the potion to keep it quiet. This will happen slowly, over years.”
“How many years?”
“You will feel it happening. After, oh, ten years, you will need to increase your dosage of the potion. And then more again at twenty. Perhaps in thirty you will have to take so much of the powder that it will kill you. But three decades free of the beast within you, that is a long enough life, yes?”
“Thirty years,” I repeated. “Yes, it is long enough.”
The old woman cackled.
“What is it?” I said.
“Oh, I should not tell you!”
“Tell me what?”
“I should not!”
By that point the old woman had more than strained my patience. She had taught me the secrets of the potion. I no longer needed her for that. Even so, as I began to slide my sword across my lap, free of its scabbard, I did not intend to actually harm the witch, only to frighten her out of her silliness and into a straight answer. I suspect she knew this, but she did stifle her laughter.
“Do not plan on a comfortable death in bed!” she said at last. “That is not your fate! The birds and the fish told me.”
“What else did they say about me?”
“That you will accomplish a great deed,” she continued, “and earn a great reward. Far from damnation, men will call you a savior.”
“I am nobody’s savior!” I snapped. “There is only one savior!”
“Do not blame me for what the hyena says.”
“I’ve heard enough,” I said. I began to collect the ingredients of the potion and made to crawl from the hut. My fellows outside had waited long enough already. Still, I could not help myself; I asked one more question.
“If not from the potion,” I said to the witch, “how do your birds and fish say that I will die?”
“They tell me,” she said, “that one day you will meet your father, boy. You will meet Khythos!”