Thalgor's WitchBy: Nancy Holland
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.