Dax gritted his teeth and blinked. None of my business. He dismounted. His smirk spread as he crept closer. The mule trailed him on the lead. Dax frowned at the animal. “I guess you’re in this.”
The mule tossed its head.
The girl squealed. Firelight her face with fear.
Maybe they’d toss those fingers his way. Dax almost vomited. The cursed beast clawed for release. No, he couldn’t let it out. He steadied himself against a wall and hunched among shadows. He should go. It wasn’t his business. He’d take his chances these men would end the curse for him. He took one step backward. If only the cursed beast would leave him.
“You’ll be telling us now.” The lead ruffian slapped the girl, his dirt-smudged face twisted with a delighted grin at his power.
One outlaw held the girl down while another set a knife to her thumb.
“No, no, no!” The girl’s desperate screams mingled with her terrified sobs. Men shouted. Ruffians menaced their captives with cudgels.
Dax squeezed his eyelids shut and clenched his jaws. They’re like me. No, I’ll be worse if the village won’t let me…”
His eyelids snapped wide. He lurched into view and the mule followed. His lips curled. He didn’t need those hateful people.
“Leave the girl alone.” He removed his gloves.
The villagers shrank away and gasped.
Dax stood with his hands curled like claws and panted.
The leader and his men froze a moment and then squinted at shadows between the buildings.
The bearded ruffian laughed and swaggered toward Dax. “What you gonna do by yerself? Why, look at you all sickly and poxy.” The outlaw shoved the cursed man.
“You can’t hurt me but I can kill all of you.”
The leader laughed and his men joined him. “You ain’t gonna do nothing.” He stepped closer and Dax smelled his sour breath as the ruffian yanked him close by his shirt. “We gonna take that mule and drag you behind it, see how long you last, Poxy.”
Dax pried the outlaw’s hands from his shirt.
The bearded leader pulled away and drew back his fist. His eyes bulged as he gaped at his blackened hands as disease spread along his hairy forearms. The brigand screamed, stumbled back and crumbled to his knees. He clawed his chest and throat. The outlaw fell onto his side and writhed for fleeting moments. A death gasp rattled out of a mouth that never closed again. His eyes glazed and stared into the smoky night.
Dax lifted his gaze from the lifeless man, shook his head and sighed. He shoulda listened. Couldn’t worry about him. His shoulders relaxed and he stepped over the body as the corpse’s lips pulled back in a desiccated grin.
The girl lay under her attackers, her sob frozen as a hush gathered among bandit and villagers alike. Then the outlaws murmured and tensed to attack.
The mule brayed.
Dax whirled at a grunt.
An outlaw fell and writhed from the animal’s well-aimed kick. Animal needs a name after that. Another sallow-faced brigand snatched at the reins and received a vicious bite followed by another whirling kick. The outlaw ducked and scrambled away with a cry. Another ruffian snorted at his fellow.
The other outlaws stared at Dax. They’re afraid but willing to fight. Their sweaty faces sneered.
“I’ll gut you for that.” The lean man with the knife at the girl’s hand stood and displayed a gap-toothed grimace.
“You can’t hurt him, sick as he is.” Felton’s warning hushed the outlaws. “It’s the old crone’s curse. He can’t die, just suffer. Whatever touches him dies.”
“Then we’ll hurt the whole lot of ya while he watches.” The other outlaws nodded and flexed their arms to make good the threat.
“The whole place is cursed.” Dax advanced and grasped the knife-man’s sleeve.
The outlaw shouted. He yanked his arm away and scrambled from Dax’s reach. He waved the knife as he circled and split his glower between the villagers and Dax. “Stay back.” His gaze flitted to the corpse lying stiff in the firelight.
Dax stepped toward the outlaw. The fight’s left them. His voice sounded steady with his even breathing. “Put out the fires and leave with nothing.”
“But–” The sallow-face man glanced from Dax to the corpse again.
“Do it!” Dax’s snarl snapped like a whip. He lifted his bare fist.
The men jumped at his sweeping glare.
The outlaws beat at the fires with their tattered cloaks. Dax surveyed their work but never put his gloves on his hands. Felton and some of the men joined the outlaws while women aided with pails of water from the nearby creek.
The raiders wasted no time retreating from the village at Dax’s approval. When they were gone, he tied the corpse to his mule and pulled the remains out to the cemetery.
“What’re we gonna do with him there.” Elon flinched from Dax.
“Just dig the grave and kick him in.”
“We gotta do more work for you?”
Dax raised his hands and yanked his gloves on at Elon’s eye level. The other man dipped his head and trotted away, his face pale in the remaining light.
Dax walked his mule along the road home with a yawn. He stretched his arms and hummed an old lullaby. The beast was hiding. He’d better go before it came back.
“Thank-you.” Elon’s wife lifted her hand with an uncertain wave when he glanced over his shoulder.
Dax tugged his hat-brim lower but neither spoke nor paused.
“Wait, Dax!” Felton scampered alongside as Dax reached the village edge. The shopkeeper gave the mule wary space. “Why did you do it?”
Ash drifted between Dax and the shopkeeper.
Dax cocked his head sideways and arched an eyebrow at the other man. He shrugged after three strides. Suffering for life ‘cause no one had no money wasn’t right. He yawned again and never looked Felton’s way. “For no reason.”
“Yep.” Dax mounted the mule, jerked his hat at Felton and urged the animal to a trot.
Dax swayed with the mule’s motion. He slouched by the time he reached the cabin. His eyelids drooped against approaching sunrise. He slid off his mount stumbled to bed.
Dax woke near mid-day and washed his face in the stale basin water beneath mirror. He stood straight before his reflection in unmarred glass. He blinked and gasped. Dax touched his face. No weeping sores lingered. He touched the mirror where cracks once marred his diseased expression. The good deed done. The curse was broken!
He whirled and staggered. Dax inspected his hands and viewed unscarred skin. So tired he never noticed. He rushed out the door where he flopped on his porch steps as both laughter and weeping shook him.
Much later, the mule stared into his face while it crunched fodder, sprigs jutting from its mouth. The animal shied when he touched it bare-handed and grasped the bridle.
“Every good deed needs a reward. I’ll name you Hope.” He mule tossed its head in his grasp and he laughed. “Let’s take a trip, Hope.”
Dax departed a few days later. He left the stack of unbroken mirrors–save the last–on the porch for Felton. The shopkeeper could sell them back to the village. He kicked Hope’s sides and the animal strolled away.
The pines creaked in the fresh breeze off the hills. “Until unmerited kindness he performs.” Shadow faded in the hollow.
Dax patted the mirror in his bag and searched the surrounding treetops with his eyes. “Can’t say I’ll miss you.”
The end of part 5 and the story!
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