Six portraits of his death he painted, and after that, Brand could paint no more. His passion was spent, his mind ached, and his body shook from weeks of irregular food and sleep. So Brand pushed all the furniture in the living room to the side and stood the paintings against them, in a circle. Then he laid on the floor and stared at all the ways he could die.
He hated himself.
Not all of himself. Just the evil part, the cowardly part, the part that made stupid, wrong, evil decisions, over and over again. Brand wanted to cut that part out of him with a rusty knife. To rip it bleeding from his flesh and kill it as gruesomely as any of these images on the canvas.
“How did this happen?” Brand asked to no one in particular.
He was pretty sure he was a good kid. Mischievous at times. Once or twice, he’d stole his mother’s favorite brush and hid it and laughed when she told him that she could have sworn she’d left her brush right there. Other times, he got angry. Actually, he got angry quite a bit. But he had never wanted to hurt anyone.
“What happened to me?” Brand said, again, and as he did, he traced his fingers into dust on the wooden floorboards, making little doodles.
He used to do that as a child. They’d never had much paper growing up, and what little they had was strictly doled out for writing practice. So his mother would take apart empty barrels and crates, and they would dip their fingers in soot and draw pictures on the planks. Brand had illustrated an entire epic story on those wooden boards.
When his grandfather found out, he’d been furious.
“You’re teaching him to be soft, Elsie,” Lord Arnaud griped to Brand’s mother. “I am trying to raise a warrior who will conquer our enemies and restore our line, and you are wasting his time with this womanly art.”
Lord Arnaud had burned the wooden boards.
Brand remembered seething as he watched the planks burn, not because his grandfather had destroyed his pictures, but because he had burned the boards in the middle of the summer. He had wasted precious fuel. The reality was that the boards would have been burned, anyway. His grandfather never brought enough supplies, certainly not enough wood for the hearth. In the coldest days of winter, Brand and his mother burned whatever they could in order to keep warm.
“We need more supplies,” his mother would say, every time his grandfather came to check in on them.
“Let’s see how the boy performs,” Lord Arnaud said.
And then his grandfather would sit and grill Brand on his magic, and however well Brand did, that determined how much food, fuel, and clothing they got. And most of the time, Brand did poorly. Lord Arnaud would gnash his teeth and yell at his mother. “What have you been doing here, Elsie? Staring at the water and drawing your reflection?”
Inevitably, Lord Arnaud tried to teach Brand magic himself, but he was rough and impatient. “Are you an idiot?” he would say. At some point—Brand didn’t remember when—he started acting slower and dumber than he was, just to frustrate his grandfather and get him to leave.
Brand stared at the dusty window, where a few rays of sunlight trickled through the glass panes. He’d often thought that his grandfather might be the reason his life had turned out so poorly. It was so tempting to blame everything on Lord Arnaud. But Brand couldn’t do that.
Because that would be admitting that his grandfather controlled him.
And Lord Arnaud had never controlled him.
When Brand was about 10, his grandfather had decided it was time to impress upon Brand the great tragedy that had happened to their family. Lord Arnaud had put some effort into this presentation, for he had summoned illusions to illustrate this travesty. Most likely, his intention was to bombard Brand’s senses with the horror of blood and screams and death. But all Brand saw was the most poorly-rendered illusions he’d ever laid eyes on. The people were a parody of bug eyes and elephantine noses, with huge heads and tiny hands. Brand had burst out laughing.
At the sound of his laughter, Lord Arnaud dropped the illusion, bound Brand in magic string, and threw him against the wall. “You dare laugh at your family’s slaughter!” he cried. And he tied Brand’s tongue and stifled his voice. While Brand struggled to breathe, his grandfather shook him and screamed, spittle flying from his grandfather’s lips and hitting Brand in the face.
Brand ought to have feared his grandfather, then. Maybe he did, but any fear he felt was drowned in hatred. Brand hated his grandfather. And in that moment, he decided was never, ever going to do anything Lord Arnaud wanted. Especially not vengeance. His grandfather could yell all he wanted, but he couldn’t make Brand do anything. Brand was never going to be like his grandfather.
Brand rubbed his forehead. He had never wanted to be like his grandfather. Half the time, he did the opposite, just to spite him. His grandfather was stingy; Brand spent money like it was going out of fashion. His grandfather hated art; Brand filled the towers with paintings. His grandfather was cautious and strategic; Brand did stupid, reckless things, just to get reactions out of pretty girls. Brand was nothing like his grandfather.
Except that he had pursued his grandfather’s plan for vengeance. Almost exactly.
“They’re all hiding, you know,” Lord Arnaud had told Brand’s mother, once at breakfast. (A breakfast Brand remembered, for Lord Arnaud had brought apple pastries, and Brand, stuffing his face, was feeling slightly more charitable toward his grandfather that day.) “They fear me, as well they should, for Willmarr has gotten weak. I mean to root out the entire line and see it destroyed. But I may have to use the dragon curse to do so.”
“I thought the curse was meant as an enforcement,” his mother said.
“It is a warning, against treachery.”
“But surely, no one will let you close enough to enact it.”
“He will use it.” Lord Arnaud looked at Brand. “He’s a male descendent of Alemannus’s line. No one knows his face. It will only take one girl; and then we shall be able to find the entire family.”
“Will he be able to learn that curse?” Elsie asked. “It’s one of the harder ones.”
“I will teach it to him myself, once he comes of age,” Lord Arnaud said. “The boy will learn, even if I need to drill it into his head with an iron rod.”
The funny thing was, his grandfather hadn’t taught Brand the dragon curse. He died first, and with his death, the barriers around the tower dissolved, and Brand and his mother were free to leave.
It should have ended there. Brand had no desire for vengeance. He had no desire to learn some obscure curse.
But his mother had insisted.