Ather awoke, drenched in sweat, the nightmare still lingering inside his head. Scream of dying men made his ears ring. He shook himself, trying to block it out. It was the same nightmare, over and over again, the only difference being in how many men still stood and fought. Every night there were visibly less soldiers, and every night that dark and ominous cloud they fought drew a little closer to where Ather stood, drenched in his own cold sweat. Pretty Lorna sat up, and rubbed her husband’s shoulders. “Go back to sleep my love. Tis just a dream.”
He grumbled, but complied.
Ather and Lorna had been married for ten years, lovers since they met. They still lived in Ather’s small, but by no means cosy, cottage, just outside of the village of Raemth. The Villagers avoided them, telling passers-by strange and frightening stories about the witch Ather and his demon wife. Ather didn’t mind the rumours, if they left him and his wife alone, he did not give a thought to those who feared him. He fondly remembered the day they had met, at a fete in the city a day’s trip to the east. She had been selling herbs, he recalled, calling out to the festival goers with a bright smile, talking in her musically accented voice. Her ebony skin was the perfect protection from the midsummer sun, but not from suspicious and frightened shoppers. They jeered at her, and called her a demon. Ather, a young witch of seventeen watched as two men threw stones at her. She had cried out in pain and shielded her face with her arms and hands, weeping.
Angered by this injustice to a fellow human, Ather had stormed upon them, throwing them aside with inhuman strength. Stupidly, they thought to fight him. He shocked one man, and he fell twitching to the ground. The other ran.
Lorna had cowered, shaking with fear. Gently Ather had taken her hand. “You’re safe now. Those men won’t hurt you if you’re with me.”
She looked up at him.
With ice blue eyes.
“Love?” Lorna rolled over, leaning her cheek on the palm of her hand. “What’s wrong?”
Ather smiled. “Nothing. I was remembering how we met. How I almost… killed that man.” He stared at his palms. Ather was a peaceful man, but unstoppable when in a rage. Luckily that rarely happened. He had learnt to control his temper.
“You stared at me for ten minutes without stopping,” she said, a smile in her voice.
“I had never seen anyone so beautiful,” he murmured. He kissed her forehead. “Sleep. I will see you in the morn.”
A scream, so familiar and bone-chilling roused him from his mediation. Lorna had been tending to their garden while he prayed to Tiluuk, patron of magic-wielders. Now he stood. From where he was located, he did not have a clear view of the garden. Worried, he flung open the curtain that obscured their doorway and sprinted towards where Lorna had been only moments before. The sight that met his eyes sickened him.
Three men stood above her, sickles and hoes held in hand. She lay in a heap, blood pouring from a wound in her side.
“FIENDS!” He shrieked, eyes ablaze with fury, hair standing on edge as though it had a life of its own. They froze, fear in their eyes.
One, brave or foolish, brandished his crude weapon. “Kill the demon! Kill the Witch!” Ather howled, pointing, and the young man fell down dead. The other two dropped their weapons and backed away; one clutched at a charm for protection. Ather merely laughed.
“Now… he was a bit simple. We don’t mean you know harm, only the black bitch.” Ather snarled, the beast inside surfacing.
“Leave,” it said. “Or DIE.” The men ran, terrified. Ather wanted to kill them, to hear their dying screams as they lay in a pool of their own blood. A warm hand clutched his ankle and he looked down, rage turning to grief as he saw his wife, covered in red, lying in front of him. He knelt, tears trickling down his cheeks.
“Lorna…” he moaned. “I’m sorry… I should’ve… I could have…”
She smiled. “At least… I will see your… face… as I die – my love.” Blood dripped from her lips. There was nothing Ather could do, except watch as the lifeblood left her. Her hand grew rigid in his and her eyes glazed over. Ather held her against his chest and howled his grief to the sky.
Two years had passed. Raemth had grown into a bustling town, full of cheer. There was a newcomer today, the paladin Ignar. He had arrived in a mannerly fashion, he and his daughter Aili. A great feast was held in his honour, for Ignar was known in all four corners of Ethram, beloved for his kindness and prowess. Legend had it that he destroyed an entire army himself, when all were incapacitated by fear. Aili had laughed at these claims, saying her father no more killed a man with one hand than she could fly. She was bored. Raemth held no interest for her, she preferred to wander the woods, climbing trees and pretending to be a wild creature. So, on the anniversary of the day ‘Raemth was freed from demonic oppression’ by two men who claimed to have singlehandedly defeat the demoness of Raemth (personally she saw them as glorified farmers, she had told herself they probably encountered a wild Furtahg, a shaggy grey beast that ate humans by the dozen), she slipped away from her famous father’s side and snuck to the outskirts of Raemth.
Green plains rolled before her, a single cottage housed amidst the splendour of the wilderness. She was about to take a step when a hand caught her arm. “I wouldn’t if I were you. The demon may be vanquished, but the witch that summoned her still lives. He would rape, kill and eat you were you to enter his domain.” It was one of Raemth’s ‘heroes’. She snatched her arm away from him and his leering face.
“I’ll go where I please.” She said, and spat on his boot, running swiftly down the grassy slope, away from the indecencies of human society.
She was surrounded by green. Stalks of grass taller than she was swayed in the wind. “Perhaps this wasn’t the best idea after all,” she said to herself. “I could get lost.” Even on tiptoe she couldn’t see above the sea of green fronds. She closed her eyes. If she thought of her destination, and then walked while imagining arriving at that place she would see a path. But this time all she got was fog. She harrumphed and sat down, her elbows resting on her knees, her chin resting on her palms. Frowning, Aili lay back, and found that she could see the clouds through the grass. I could lay here forever, she thought. Her eyes fluttered closed, her breathing regulated, and soon she was asleep.
Ather frowned. Someone had noticed his wards, but had made no move to penetrate them. He yawned. That was odd. Most people knew the way to his house, even with the long grass and the wards in place. That they had stopped meant they were a newcomer. He only hoped it wasn’t that stupid paladin. Strong as he was, he was no match for an instrument of the Gods. Saying a quick prayer to Tiluuk, and another for the soul of Lorna, he gathered together three things – a feather, a stone, and a blade of glass.
Maybe it was time he left the confines of the cottage; after all, he could not mourn forever.
A rustling noise interrupted her rest. Aili opened her bleary eyes, making out a figure standing a few paces in front of her. She rubbed her eyes and the figure came into focus. It was a black haired man, long faced, sharp nosed, with stubble her father would be proud of. He was handsome, in a dark, frightening and powerful way. She sighed. “I suppose you’re here to rape kill and eat me, are you?”
He laughed, short and quick, and then stopped.
“I remember the rumours about killing… but when did I allegedly rape and eat? You aren’t that paladin are you?” he sounded wary.
This time Aili laughed.
“Heavens no! My father is, but he’s so stupid he wouldn’t know the pointy end of a sword from the hilt. He’s only famous because he accidently tripped and knocked the dagger out of the hand of the man who tried to kill the king. I was there. You must be the witch.”
“Call me Ather.” He extended a hand. Aili took it and he pulled her to her feet before hurriedly dropping it. “I suppose,” here he sighed and brushed a loose strand of hair away from his face; Aili noticed his eyes were golden, “I should be hospitable, and ask if you would like some tea.”
“Finding fog instead of a path, falling asleep on a bunch of rocks and now being invited to tea? It sounds like a fairytale.” She bowed. “I would love to.”
He held out his hand, “Take my hand and I’ll take you away.”
“MILORD! Ather’s taken your daughter hostage!”
“Aili? How?” Ignar threw himself upright, staring at the mage Etnahn who was in turn staring out the window, his eyes glazed over.
“He tricked her milord. She took his hand and they vanished. I will get one of the villagers to guide you there.” Etnahn, a war-mage, placed his hand on Ignar’s chest and murmured a spell. “Should you have to fight I will be able to take over your body so you do not disgrace yourself.” Ignar nodded.
“Ather is a strong witch Etnahn.”
The war-mage sighed. “I know sire, but I cannot go myself in your guise, he would see right through it.” He rubbed his pointy beard. “You’ll do fine. Witches rely solely on magic and strength alone. I doubt this one knows how to fight.”
“I, your father, am coming to your rescue dear daughter.” With a flamboyant swing of his cloak, Ignar left the room, leaving Etnahn in a fit of giggles.
Ather poured the tea for his guest. She was pretty, but young, scarcely out of childhood, yet with a hardened look in her eyes that made her seem older than she truly was. She took the cup in both hands and thanked him. Ather closed his eyes and muttered a prayer, thanking the God of bounty.
“They say you’re a witch, and that your wife was a demoness in disguise.”
Ather peered at her through his lashes. “People say many things. I am sure some say unflattering things about you.” She inclined her head.
“I don’t believe the rumours about you. That woman… you tried to save her, didn’t you? What was she like?” There was something about her that Ather could not place. Lorna hadn’t had it, yet this one did.
Then it hit him. She had the Sight. “She was… beautiful beyond compare. Skin the rich brown of freshly turned soil, hair as black and gleaming as a raven wing. And eyes so blue you could drown in them.”
“You loved her. You must have been lost when she died.”
Ather nodded. Why was she so understanding, so kind? “If you would excuse me for a moment.” Aili inclined her head and the witch left.
He dug his bare feet into the ground and tilted his head to the sky, trying to hold back tears. Lorna’s grave spread before him, an endless meadow of wildflowers, with a single standing stone as her gravestone. They had been wed here, before the village turned against them. “Forgive me love. I am sorry I could not protect you. The moment you left I should have joined you.”
“But you are still needed here.”
The wind had picked up. Ather turned, tears blotting his vision. He thought he could make out the figure of a woman, shapely and tall. “Lorna?” he whispered.
A ghostly hand caressed his face. “Ask the girl about the wall of black clouds. My destiny was only small scene in this act. I am glad you yet live my love. Find happiness again.” For a second Lorna stood before him, true and real. He wanted to run to her, to hold her and never let her go; but he could not move. A breath of wind blew hair in his eyes. When his vision cleared all that was left was a single polished stone.
“She says to live.”
Ather looked up, startled. Aili stood over him, casting a shadow upon him. “I know.” He faltered, grasping for and then said, “How did you know?”
She crossed her arms and smiled. “I have the Sight.” She touched her middle knuckle to her forehead in the gesture that all with the Sight were taught by the Priestesses.
“Who taught you? I thought you had an ability, but it’s so hard to See.”
Aili nodded. “The Sorceress who taught me, Lyndra, she Guarded it so no one could See ME; but as you saw past them, if by a little, it appears that you recognise her work.”
Ather chuckled. “Yes. We are old friends, Lyndra and I. She’s a slippery woman to catch, she is.” Lyndra was a regal and elegant woman, with a stern face. Her ethereal beauty had earned her the love of kings, and yet she had renounced them. She was old, so very ancient, but had the appearance of a woman in her late forties. Ather remembered her well.
“Then you would be intrigued to know that she married, not a year past.”
“Indeed?” Ather raised an eyebrow. They had eloped, for a while in his youth, but to her men were playthings. Although she still remained friends with those whose hearts she had broken, she never did regard any of them highly. She respected Ather only because he was a witch and his powers rivalled her own. “A most comely and powerful man he must be.”
“You mean an idiotic paladin who cannot keep away from his drink if it cost him his life.”
“Your father, I take it?”
“Aye. I don’t see in him what she does. She’s my stepmother.”
Ather snorted. “I know why she wed your da.” He stared to the sky, remembering part of an old chant. “Kings will sing when birds are crowned and lovers adorned with diademed brow.”
“Ma used to sing that to me.” Remarked Aili softly. “It was her favourite song.” She blinked away tears. “I’m sick of this charade.” She only then realised what he had said before he had begun to croon. “Why’d Lyndra marry my father?”
“Because you’re a main character in this play. Because this is your entrance. Because she Saw your death.”
The words chilled the Sighted girl to the bone. A Seer like Lyndra never Saw wrong. If she said that Aili was to die, then Aili would die.
“She told you this?”
“Aye. We were on the run a few years ago and she couldn’t stop it. She said it was one of the strongest ones she’s ever had.”
“The Gods roll the die but they don’t control how it falls.”
Ather nodded. It was odd hearing wisdom pour from the mouth of such a young woman, but she exuded an air of age. He wondered how much she really knew. How much she really let show.
They stood quietly, side by side, each thinking their own thoughts, both staring at the sun that was only now beginning to set.
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