Thalgor's Witch(4)

By: Nancy Holland

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.