(Continued from Part II)

“One day, after unsuccessfully calling my sons for dinner, I went to barn to look for them. What I found was a study in horror: Moira’s cage was open and she sat atop it, bathed in blood. My boys both lay dead beneath her, their bodies skinned and broken. She looked at them and then at me, hissing. Then she screamed and began to stretch her wings. They reached a span of some 5 feet – how they had grown so quickly I had no idea. Without thinking, I drew my stiletto and attacked her. She was as strong as she looked, but I was maddened. I managed to injure one of her wings: not much, but enough to drive her off. I vowed that I would kill her before I buried my sons.  I was wrong.

“I entered my house and through bitter tears told my wife what had happened. I vowed to track the dragon down and slay it, but she begged me to let it go. She could not bear to lose all in one day, and if I left she assured me that she would die of a broken heart.  In my rage I ignored her pleas again, taking up my blade and immediately setting off the way I had seen Moira escape.

After half a day’s travel, I spotted smoke ahead of me, and I began to run. I came upon a farmer’s field, an isolated farmstead on the very border of the Westering Slough where it begins to rise toward the plain. The farmer lay dead in it, his guts half eaten and spread among his seeds. Nearer the burning house, I saw whom I assumed to be his wife, slain as well. I fell to my knees and cried at what my foolishness had brought to me.

“Then I heard a scream. It was not the angry scream of a dragon, but the pained scream of a child, coming from the burning house. I ran into the structure, not thinking of the danger, and found a child within. She had fallen and her face seemed to be aflame. I brought her out and still she screamed. I could not find the dragon, so I wrapped the child in my shirt and took her home, reasoning in my grief that perhaps this girl could replace my lost sons, at least in my wife’s heart. When I reached home, I noted two small graves in the yard. I entered the house and all was quiet but the screams of the babe in my arms. My wife lay dead in our bed, with mud from my sons’ graves still on her hands and face. I raised Moragan alone from that day.”

Moragan shuddered at the sound of her name. Her father had told her the story of how she had come to live with him. And he never disclaimed responsibility for causing her pain. He often apologized, she always forgave him. He was a hard man: decades of killing must leave some mark on a man’s soul. But Moragan knew that he would sacrifice anything for her, not out of guilt, but because that’s what a father did. She just worried that his dedication to her was not always balanced with foresight.

“Dragons are evil,” Cutter continued. “They kill without mercy or need. They are cold and cruel, and we do well to hunt them wherever we can. I knew then that their evil was incorrigible, though I was too proud to admit it to my wife. I know it now, to my shame and pain. I will not assist you to loose more evil upon the world.”

“I am sorry for your loss,” the Red Brother said flatly. “Rest assured that what I do with them need not burden your troubled conscience further. Now, name your price.”

Cutter looked at the Red Bother. “I want you to restore Moragan’s face,” he said.  The Red Brother seemed to think on that point for a moment. Then he looked at Moragan for the first time since he had walked through the door.

“I cannot restore it,” he began, “if by that you mean to put it back the way it was. The girl was but an infant when she was burned; she cannot today wear that face. But there is another way, a swap, so to speak, whereby we can get a new face for your daughter by trading hers for the face of another maiden.”

Cutter did not look convinced. “Where would you find someone willing to make such an exchange?”

“I shall attend to that,” said the brother. “You get the eggs.”

Moragan was even less convinced than Cutter looked.  Who would ever choose to trade faces with her?  Some fugitive from justice? Hardly. That problem could be solved with a mask. Perhaps he would get a face from a corpse? The other person would not suffer. Still, Moragan shivered at the thought. No one would willingly choose her face under any condition that she could conceive of.

She had almost concluded that the whole thing was a sham when she looked up and saw Cutter and the Red Brother shake hands.  When she spied the look on the warlock’s face as he turned to leave, she was certain.

Cutter fumbled about with the bird cage, ensuring that it was locked and that its two messages – one for success, the other for failure – were carefully stashed in his drawer.  Then he turned to Moragan.

“I am going into Westering Slough tomorrow,” he said. “I will be gone three weeks at most.  I promise.”

(Continued in Part IV)