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Erwyn blessed the hated dark. Not the familiar black of night, but the cold time of year when the sun retreated from the land and filled the days with gloom.
The shadows allowed her to all but disappear when she pulled the cloak around herself and the child by her side. Huddled behind a dense evergreen thicket at the edge of the leafless forest, they were near enough to the road not to lose their way once it was safe to move on, but well hidden from the warriors who tramped past them back to their camp.
The victors, almost a hundred of them, sauntered along the road talking among themselves about the battle they had won, the women they had taken.
The child beside her, barely five years old, whimpered with fear. Erwyn slipped one hand over the girl’s mouth. Luckily, the men on the road talked and laughed too loudly to hear. Felyn clung closer.
Soon only stragglers still ambled down the road. Erwyn and the child would soon be free to escape to the Sea Mountains.
The slightest stir of the air warned her of the sword that brushed her back.
Fear turned her blood to ice. Even her magic froze.
“Is this how your men scout a forest, Gurdek?” asked the man who held the sword.
“It is the cold time,” came the reply. “And they are weary from battle, Thalgor.”
“I wonder if I should kill this lurker or you.”
The words held more amusement than menace, but Felyn cried out in terror. She threw off the cloak and fled into the underbrush.
Exposed, Erwyn stood. Her knees wobbled, but she held her head high and blinked in the pale-yellow glow of the shuttered lantern carried by the smaller of the two men.
Before she made out more than their shapes–one very tall, the other short and broad–the child cried out again.
Erwyn moved toward the sound, but the sword the larger man held now at her belly stopped her.
Something flailed about in the bushes. A third man appeared, the child thrown over one shoulder. This man was filthy, his clothes in tatters, his hair matted to his head. Erwyn’s stomach clenched with disgust as much as fear.
“Small, but female,” the man declared with an ugly laugh.
Erwyn made another involuntary move against the sword. It gave way slightly rather than wound her.
“Drop her,” the man who held it, Thalgor, told the newcomer.
The third man complied, but grumbled darkly.
The child froze in the light then ran to Erwyn, who again felt the unwelcome need to comfort her.
“A full-size female,” the third man said, his toothless leer close enough for Erwyn to smell the rot of his breath.
When he reached a hand toward her breast, she murmured a few words to turn his own evil against him. He crumpled to the ground and began to vomit black bile.
Gurdek watched the man fall, a look of horror on his face.
“A witch.” He let the lantern sink.
“Perhaps.” The tall man, Thalgor, moved his sword from Erwyn’s belly to her throat. Her heart beat wildly and rose to meet it there. “But witches can heal as well as harm.”
The man writhing on the forest floor cried, “Yes. Make it stop!”
Thalgor pushed him aside with his foot. “Not heal you. You deserved the curse. But…”
Above the stench of vomit, the sickly sweet smell of the tall man’s deadly wound flowed over Erwyn.
Her duty as a witch claimed her. She tossed her cloak over the child and opened the leather bag she wore on a strap across her chest.
“Down,” she commanded, freed of the fear that had held her.
To the obvious amazement of the others, the tall man fell to his knees at her feet, his sharply angled face raised to her.
The reason became clear when she pulled back his cloak to expose the gaping wound cut under his heart, clear through the leather breastplate.
As she fled the battle she had seen the headless body of the leader who had destroyed her own camp and enslaved her. None but this great man could have struck such a blow.
“So, the enemy wounded to kill even as he died.”
Thalgor struggled to his feet again, sword still in hand.
“As will I, should you attempt any treachery.”
The blood-splattered weapon glinted in the lantern light as he raised it over his head.
Unafraid in the face of his weakness, she put her hand on the skin exposed by the severed breastplate. His flesh burned and shifted under her touch.
“It is not your time yet.”
He lowered the sword, but held it ready.
“Bring the lantern,” she commanded.
Gurdek sidled closer. He nervously eyed the vial of glowing blue liquid and the stone bowl she pulled from her bag.
“I need light and heat.” She took the lantern and set it on the ground. “Remove his breastplate.”
She unshuttered the lantern, poured the ocean-scented liquid into the bowl, and set it near the flicker of the yellow flame.
“Why would you heal an enemy too weak to harm you or your child?” Thalgor asked through teeth gritted against Gurdek’s jostling.
She is not my child, Erwyn began to say, but thought better of it. Would these strangers value an untouched woman or a mother more?
“Magic has laws of its own,” she said instead. “My gift does not belong to me. I must heal wherever I can.” She’d learned the ancient formula from her mother long ago. “Besides, your friend here seems fit enough to harm us both.”
Freed from the blood-soaked breastplate, Thalgor looked the shorter man up and down.
“Fit, perhaps, but too afraid of witches to do more than throw the lantern at you.” He smiled, then drew a sharp breath as she painted the heated oil on his wound.
Charmed in spite of herself by the smile and the way his long brown hair framed his face, she offered a smaller bag. “I have herbs to bring sleep while I work.”
“No. I am the leader of my band. Pain and death are nothing to me.”
Which sounded like another ancient formula.
She felt the weakness of his body under her hands, could touch his pain with her mind, and knew it was far from nothing. Without her magic, he would be dead by dawn. Even now his body swayed and sweated with the stress of not crying out whenever she touched the wound.
She chanted the magic words in the silent clearing. The man she’d made sick lay frozen on the ground, no doubt afraid any movement would make the pain in his belly worse. Gurdek held the light close to where she worked, his eyes still wide with terror. The child under the cloak no longer wept. Probably she’d fallen asleep.
Suddenly Thalgor’s powerful body slumped to the ground.
Erwyn dodged his fall, but it startled Gurdek so much he dropped the lantern with a cry of panic and fled down the road.
Now she was free to carry out her promise to her dying mother and take Felyn to the Wise Witches. Only they might be able to free the child of her curse. And, perhaps, provide them both with the home they had lost when their camp was destroyed in the last dark time.
She turned to wake the child, then looked back at the unconscious man at her feet.
She could not yet be certain he would live. The laws that ruled her magic required her to save him if she could. Her vow to her mother, what she herself might want or fear as a woman–neither mattered in the face of her duty as a witch. Escape would have to wait.
“I hope your other lieutenants have more fortitude in the face of a simple witch,” she muttered as she righted the lantern and shifted Thalgor’s body so she could reach his wound. “You should have taken the herbs, great man.”
“I have no need of them.” Eyes dark and hard as stone fluttered open. “Gurdek was cursed once by a witch, so he is more afraid than most.”
As she began to bind the wound with cobwebs from her bag, long habit made her try to distract him from the pain. Too late she realized if he fainted again, once she had safely bound his wound, she could escape without violating the laws of her magic.
“Cursed in a way only a man can be. For a whole year.”
He began to laugh, but the movement tore at his wound. His face whitened and fresh beads of sweat dotted his brow.
She could not make herself hurt him more, but she didn’t try to distract him again.
She helped him sit before she tore his tunic into strips to wrap the wound. When she pulled hard to knot it, he gave a thunderous moan and fell back to the ground.
Her heart pounded as she gathered her things, roused the sleeping child, and wrapped the cloak around them both. She took a moment to release the man she had cursed from his pain. He fell at once into a deep sleep. Duty done, she turned to flee.
An icy hand, relentless as the leather hobbles that had kept her a slave, wrapped itself around her ankle. The chill that ran through her was fear and more than fear.
“No, witch.” Thalgor’s voice was thick with pain. “I am not done with you yet.”
“Gurdek!” Thalgor knew his lieutenant would have circled around and returned by now.
He appeared at once, sword drawn.
Gurdek eyed the witch, as tall as he, if half as wide, then he looked back at Thalgor, who kept his eyes fixed on the rope at his lieutenant’s waist. With a barely perceptible sigh, Gurdek took the rope and started to cut it in two pieces.
“No. Only tie the witch. The child will stay with her mother.” Thalgor shot a sharp glance at their prisoner. “And the witch will allow it as long as we have her child.”
He wondered if the child’s father lay dead among the dozens of men he had killed this day. The witch did not act like a woman who had just lost her man. But he knew little of what went on between men and women, beyond the most basic.
And she is not a woman, he reminded himself when his blood began to heat at the thought of that most basic.
Perhaps witches did not mourn. Or perhaps this one did not. She surely showed no sign of love toward her child. Not as his mother had on that far ago night when she and his childhood self had hidden from a warrior who found them after all.
The child was the image of her mother–the same oval face with dainty features, the same dark hair pulled back in a long braid, the same large eyes under a strong brow. But the child had darker skin and cat-green eyes with slitted centers.
The witch’s eyes were a pale blue that should have been weak and watery, but instead shone like the sky on a summer morning. Shone with anger as she submitted to the rope.
If not for the child, he was certain, she would fight both him and Gurdek to the death, with her magic or without it. She might even take one of them with her.
Both her courage and her submission made his blood churn in a way that distressed him.
Thalgor lifted himself to his knees, then his feet. He felt the wound heal, but pain still burned a black edge to his vision. Once on his feet, he took an unsteady step forward. He had lost a lot of blood and the witch’s magic had not restored it, but his legs held him. He walked on, as if he never doubted he could, and gestured for Gurdek to follow.
“What do you want with a witch?” Gurdek grumbled with the familiarity of an old comrade as they followed the road toward their camp.
Preoccupied with walking normally despite the pain, Thalgor leered at him in response.
Gurdek knew him too well to settle for such an answer. “You do not allow the men to rape, and even if you wished to take a witch to your bed, you know magic protects witches from men. I doubt this one will give herself to you freely.”
Thalgor’s body heated again with an unwanted vision of the witch struggling beneath him as he buried himself in the soft wetness of her body. But the flash of lust dissolved into memories of all the nights he had lain awake and listened to his mother scream and beg. Revulsion twisted inside him.
He knew now he should never have allowed the vile man they had left behind into the band when he came to them as a starving renegade. What he would do about the depraved pleasure his own imagination had given him Thalgor did not know. He could almost be grateful for his pain, as if it were a magic charm against the danger he might become as cruel as his mother’s tormentor.
“Witches heal,” he replied. “And they have second sight. To know how many warriors an enemy has, and where, could make us invincible.”
“Her second sight did not save the band we defeated today.”
“Perhaps their leader did not listen to her.” He gestured with his sword to the bit of leather still wrapped around the witch’s ankle. “He kept her a slave. Who listens to a slave?”
“But why should she share her gift with us?”
Thalgor looked back at the woman, who walked straight and proud despite the ropes and the child who clung to her cloak. “Perhaps she can be convinced to throw her lot in with ours. It might prove interesting to try.”
A seduction either way, he thought with a shiver of desire.
Erwyn struggled against the indignity of the ropes with small movements she hoped the men could not see in the deepening purple of evening, but she could not free herself. Even if she could, as the panic of the battle faded she realized her plan to flee to the Sea Mountains was worse than hopeless.
She had no food and the barren dark-time countryside offered little. Felyn could only walk so far in a day, and she was too heavy for Erwyn to carry. Despite her magic, they would starve long before they reached the Sea Mountains.
Best to let these men feed them well now and escape with stolen food, and perhaps an ox. If they hobbled her with rope, she could free herself when the time came. Until then, her magic would protect her, and she could protect the child.
Still, the rope chafed her pride as well as her wrists. From her hiding place in the evergreens, she had watched the victorious warriors herd the other captured women with the old men and the children toward the victor’s camp, all walking freely. Despite his words, perhaps this big man doubted his strength and his companion’s willingness to take on a witch unaided.
Or perhaps he likes the sight of a woman bound, a voice inside her warned.
The child who clung to her cloak stumbled, but Erwyn could not steady her with her hands tied. She watched as Gurdek righted the girl, and sensed a kind heart under the full beard and warlike bluster. His leader, though, was all ice and stone.
Anger shaped another plan in her mind, one more liable to succeed, if also more liable to prove fatal to her in the end.
When they reached the camp, she could hand Felyn over to the other captured women. None of them could raise her as a witch, if she was one, but freed of the child, Erwyn could take her revenge on their captors and make her escape.
The laws laid down at the end of the war between witches and men would keep her from using magic to kill, but her power offered other forms of vengeance. The big, handsome warrior with the ropes and the sly smile would suffer first and most.
But, she remembered with regret, the promise to her mother made revenge impossible.
Soon they emerged from the dark silence of the forest to the noise and firelight of Thalgor’s camp. A camp so like the home she had lost that her eyes stung with tears.
Oxen lowed as boys took the goods and food captured in the battle from the baskets the animals carried. Smaller boys herded the cattle already freed of their burdens deeper into the meadow with the sheep. Somewhere a pipe played a dancing tune. Women cooked around campfires. A whole ox roasted on the largest fire.
Erwyn stomach reminded her a dismal meal at dawn was the last she had eaten.
Everyone around her talked and laughed and sang.
All but the captives from the defeated band at one side of the camp. The captured women knelt to shelter their children, wept on each other’s shoulders, or clung to the few old men. They and the older boys stood at the edge, as if they could protect the others from the ring of well-armed warriors that encircled them.
She did not look for her aunt among the others from the camp where they’d both been enslaved. She had seen a misdirected arrow pierce the old woman’s body through as she tried to flee the battle. A shattering wave of grief washed over Erwyn at the memory.
She remembered, too, the look of horror on the face of the archer who had shot the arrow, a tall, slender young man with immense brown eyes in a too thin face.
Thalgor walked into the camp without any sign of his injury, although she still felt the aching weakness inside him. His people fell silent as they saw him, until the entire camp was quiet except for the weeping captives at its edge. Even the cattle seemed awed to silence by their triumphant leader.
“My people,” Thalgor said in a voice gone from mocking to majestic. “We have done well. Our warriors are great, and brave, and strong. We have taken food, livestock, and goods from many tents. We have taken women who in time will belong to our men who have none, children who will become as our own, old men to help with the work of the camp. Remember what they have lost this day.”
His people murmured and nodded as if this were a speech they heard after every victory. But how could that be? Let the old men live? Take the children as their own? The women were not simply to be used and sold as slaves? Yet Gurdek had said their men were not allowed to rape, and Erwyn felt the truth in Thalgor’s words.
The other captives fell silent, no doubt as surprised as she was by his strange speech.
With a gesture to Gurdek to keep Erwyn and the child where they were, Thalgor walked to the circle where the remnants of the defeated band huddled together. Only the small children still wept.
“When we leave this meadow, you may come with us and have our protection.” He spoke in the same majestic voice, softer now because his listeners were fewer. “Or you may venture out on your own. You will not be harmed if you stay with us. In any way,” he emphasized as he looked at the women. “But you must work to keep yourselves. Your children will learn our ways. Those women who choose may become the women of our warriors who have none. We do not take slaves.”
The captives stared at him in disbelief, then fell to talking among themselves. The conversations gradually took on clear patterns. Mothers argued with sons old enough to wish to join what warriors might be left from their band to become marauders and seek revenge. Old men argued with women reluctant to leave their men behind if any hope remained that they still lived. All of them hungry, cold, and frightened. All aware the choice Thalgor offered was for most of them a choice between life and death.
Slowly, in ones and twos and family groups, they stepped outside the circle of warriors.
“We are now of you.” The voice of the old man who led them was rough with grief.
Thalgor nodded and gestured for food to be brought to the larger group who had joined his camp, and to the few who remained inside the circle–boys old enough to brave a life on their own, childless women who would leave in the morning to search for their men. A fire was lit for them as well.
Felyn began to cry.
“Let me take her to the other women,” Erwyn urged Gurdek. “She is hungry.”
“You will both eat.” Thalgor had reappeared at her side. “In my tent.”
She looked up into eyes that seemed carved from agate.
“I thought you took no slaves.” She schooled the fear, and that other emotion she had no name for, from her voice.
“We take no human slaves.”
Her blood ran cold, then hot.
“Make sure the men know she is a witch,” he told Gurdek as he took the rope from him.
Then he turned back to Erwyn. “As for the child, without her within my reach, I would not dare keep you in my camp, much less in my tent.”
Erwyn shivered with a fear her magic could not lessen. A dread darker, deeper than of death.
Thalgor saw her fear. He smiled.
End of Excerpt