Thalgor's Witch(2)

By: Nancy Holland

“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.”

“Cursed how?”

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.