Circle of Blood: (3) Trial and Error

      The castle was bedecked in scarlet and black, the colors of mourning.

     The nobles’ sibilant whispers and the dignified sobbing of the queen’s ladies were bubbles in an aural swamp, rising to sink into the marbled stones of the high-ceilinged hall.

    Nakira, the Healers’ leader, stood before the king, her pristine alabaster robe giving her the aspect of a pale spirit gliding through blood.

  “I’m sorry, but I could not save her, my king.”

 Ohlin’s tears came unbidden, uncontrolled, and in front of his court, unwelcome; his jaw tightened and his shoulders tensed.

I was the only one who saw him clench his fist, though I honestly didn’t think he would use it. The blow sent Nakira sprawling from the dais, the crack of fist on bone was a sudden piercing as she tumbled down into an ungainly heap within the robe, now stained with flecks of blood.

Amid the screams, gasps, and exclamations, she was helped to her feet, her cheek swollen, a trickle of blood in the corner of her mouth.

He then passed his sentence in the most soft, reasonable voice, given the circumstance, as if he was discussing plans for a pleasant outing.

“Take them out of here,” he told the guard, who gave him a curious look.

“She’s alone, your majesty.”

“No, fool. I meant take them all out of here, out of the kingdom. Drive them into the wildlands. Kill any who resist, by whatever means you need to use. Don’t pursue them further; leave them to their fate.”

The cries and screams receded to the deeper voices of the council’s earnest cautions for temperance and mercy, all falling on deaf ears and a stone heart covered in ice; in his grief he was resolute, and would not be swayed.

Nakira looked to the captain of the guard, reading his lips as he held up an index finger: ‘One day.’
They escorted her outside, gave her a horse, and sent her away at a gallop.

                                                                            **************

He spoke to me in private.

“They’re not to reach the wildlands. The men of your Order will execute them on the way.”

“King Ohlin, it would be more prudent to let them go.”

His gaze on me was deathly calm, his next words holding a concealed dagger poised to cut the thread of my existence if we betrayed him.

“See it done.”

***************

Sharrika was crying, and Tafari simmered below boiling.

We’d be at the palace soon.

Sharikka let go of my arm, struggling to get herself under control

“Do you remember?” I asked.

“Just…just flashes.” She stopped walking, hugged herself tighter. “Dogs, horses, fire and screams. We threw spells back at them, spells that did things, put things, inside their armor. Nakira wouldn’t retreat. She called in the Blood Covens.”

The Blood Covens lived on the fringes of the wastelands, separated even from each other, but they all practiced blood magic to one degree or another, all of it lethal.

“That’s why they use the circles of blood? To protect their territory?”

“Yes, and the hanging of the knights they defeated, in full armor, in the places they were victorious. As I said, strictly to show their power.”

“Then why the binding spell in the clouds?”

“To keep the king’s men from pursuing. It was supposed to lose strength, but…” She looked up just as a long flash slithered among the storm clouds, turning their undersides to lilac, but smelling of sulfur.

“But why would they make the spell bind other witches?”

“They confronted Nakira, said she was weak, said it would be best if they claimed the lands we would have settled in the countryside. They wanted us to join them, but tired as she was, of the whole thing, really, she refused.”

“They killed her?”

“I don’t know. Don’t see a reason why they wouldn’t.” She had to get herself composed again.

Tafari had walked some distance away; that had to stop if she was going to fight.

“Is she going to be alright?”

Sharikka hesitated before she answered. “I don’t know.”

“If she’s going to fight—”

She gave me a sharp look of frustration. “She’s not ready to fight!”

That was a stronger reaction than I was expecting. I gave her a moment, then took her by the forearms to step in and make sure I had her attention.

“She’s my daughter too, and we must make her ready. If you’re going to fight the Blood Covens, you’re going to need all the help you can get. Frankly, I’d let them have the place; it’s full of bloated corpses and blighted lands, and it reeks of carrion and waste.

“It will take years to clean up, so why do you even want it? If they rule, there’ll be no sanctuary for you here.”

She sighed, taking her arms from my hands, a gentle sweep of her own arm indicating all the land within view.

“Without a ruler, this place could be a haven for those of us who don’t practice blood rituals. We’re a vital link in the chain, even if weak. One thing remains true through all our lore: balance is essential to order. If the Blood Covens want to rule, they’ll use us as ambassadors and healers to fool the leaders of the lands they occupy.”

“You’ll become a servant.”

“Yes, but just for the moment. In time we’ll rebuild, restore our numbers, and bite the serpent’s head when we get the chance.”

I sighed at her naivete. “Sharrika, you’re talking about infiltrating, attacking, and killing the leaders of the Blood Covens. They went rogue centuries ago; they’ll see you coming long before you’re prepared, and take hours killing you, and everyone allied with you, for sport.”

My stomach sank as I saw her start to smile in the middle of what I was saying. “That’s where you come in.”

We started back toward the palace; she didn’t take my arm again.

“Finish your story,” she said.

 

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Circle of Blood

I stood looking at the carnage, blinking from the sudden, searing flashes of lightning streaking across roiling black clouds.

There was no thunder, which gave the scene an eldritch air.

Swarms of rats moved en masse over the mounds of corpses, taking such treasures as they could find.

The torrential rain cut the edge off the stench, but didn’t stop it.

An armored knight, his bare hands pierced with spikes, hung in the center of the palace door, a circle of blood painted around him. I didn’t know how long he was there, but the crows had taken his eyes.

It’s already started. I’m too late.

A short, hooded figure approached from under a pile of smoldering wood, stealthy, heading for the doomed knight. As he was hung with his weapons, they were going to loot him.

With his hands spiked, there was nothing he could do to stop them.  I think more than anything else it was the cowardice of the pending deed that rankled and made me call out.

“Leave him alone!”

The figure jumped; they hadn’t seen me through the downpour.

They scampered back into their hiding place. The urchins knew this backwater warren better than me. I lived here once, but never called it home.

The man turned his head in my direction, and I worked through the mounds of bodies to take him down.

“I’ll get you out of here.”

“No!”

I stopped, taken aback by his refusal.

“No. They’ll know it was you, and they’ll find you. I’ve nothing to go back to. Better I die here. Leave! Leave while you still can, while there’s still a chance you can—”

The serrated blade of a knife buried itself in his chest with such force that his body jerked, making a muffled thump against the door, and he went still.

A different hooded urchin stood there, smiling at its handiwork.

That could’ve been me.

I sighed, still looking at the knight, but speaking to the urchin. “What do you want?”

They answered me, retrieving the knife. “I remember you. You should leave, priest. There’ve been changes since you were exiled, and your Order is no longer welcome here.”

“Where do I know you from?”

They removed the hood: a girl with smooth brown skin, large, dark brown doe -shaped eyes that held an intelligence beyond her years, her form on the cusp of womanhood, but hidden beneath the soaked black cloak she wore.

“I’m your daughter; you took my mother, Sharrika, against her will.”

“Sharrika…?”

She came toward me. “I see you remember her name.”

“She was supposed to kill me.”

“Yes, and you did something to make her stop. She fell in love with you instead. What did you do, father?” She spat the word out like snake venom. “Rape her with a spell?”

I had no answer she would find acceptable.

“What became of Sharrika? What is your name?”

She spat on my robe, and I reacted, backhanding her across the face.

She sprawled over some bodies, sending the rats scurrying, then pushed off the pile, running back to me with the knife in her hand.

I didn’t want to hurt her, but I didn’t know what she was going to do; I tried casting, and felt a jolt to my own body that almost made me lose my footing.

She has powers. The bloody knife was at my throat, tilting my chin up.

Her breathing was raspy and harsh. “If you ever hit me again—!”

    “Tafari!”

The rain had intensified, but the figure that approached was only in a long red dress, clinging to the very curves my hands explored in better times.

Tafari took the knife from my throat. “This isn’t over, priest.”

Sharrika walked up to her, took the knife, and apologized, her eyes downcast. “Please forgive my daughter, sir. She isn’t married, and so has not yet been–“

“That’s none of his concern, mother!”

I was surprised at Sharrika’s candor; it wasn’t her way.

“Sharrika.”

She gave me a blank stare, tilted her head. “Do I know you? Have we met before?”

Emotions warred within me, but I nodded. “We have. I’ll tell you later. Let’s get out of the rain.”

A crow had landed on the knight’s soaked corpse, looking for fresh pickings. The rats persisted in their foraging among the mounds of rotting flesh.

She nodded and beckoned me to follow.

The rain fell harder, but she and Tafari took their time; it was a moment before I realized the rain was falling around them, not on them.

“Witches.”

I don’t know whether Tafari heard me, but she turned to give me a mirthless smile.

I ignored the threat, put my head down to keep the rain out of my eyes, and walked back into the eye of the malevolent hurricane that would shake my life to its core. It would have been easier if I’d turned and walked back through the broken gates, as Tafari commanded, never to return.

When all was said and done, I was glad I didn’t, but I wished I had.

 

 

Melchora’s Revenge

I was almost at the end of the King’s Woods, my bloody satchel of rabbits trailing flies and banging against my back as I fled the wardens’ horses.
The men were good riders, and chased fast and hard, their horses well trained and responsive, but I knew the woods well, having skulked about it for years. I ran toward the only place I knew would provide temporary solace.
Melchora’s cottage was on its own land, where she settled after the Purging, just outside the boundary of the King’s Wood proper. She all but dared them to try to move her. She was a dark beauty with a grace, elegance, and maturity that belied the malevolence of her craft, and from what I was told, her cravings.
As much as I wanted to skirt the area entirely, being subject to a witch’s whims was better than throwing myself on the king’s mercy and his warden’s justice.
A choice of poisons, as they say.
Realizing where I was headed, and that they weren’t going to catch me, they turned aside and cursed my lineage, promising the next time would be the last.
They tried to move her, but she’d move the house to different locations, or hide it, or duplicate it as they ran from place to place looking for the real one. After some time, she tired of the sport, and they tired of the spooking, and came to an uneasy understanding; if she didn’t attack anything, they’d leave her in peace.
As they rode away, I sat down in the grass and put the satchel next to me; the flies were gone, but the smell of blood seemed stronger, wafting in the otherwise pleasant breeze.
A small house of dark stones appeared in front of me, surrounded by a dreary fog, and the sky seemed to darken even though the sun was high. The hairs on my neck were standing, and a flash of fear brought me to my feet.
Silence filled the air, not so much as a bird, and the wind itself seemed to stop in mid-motion.
The door opened, and Melchora appeared; she didn’t walk into it, she appeared.
I stood there gaping like a child at a magic show.
She looked at the satchel. “You’re on my land, poacher. That’ll cost you two rabbits.”
Her voice snapped me out of my ogling reverie, but I had to swallow a few times before I could finally speak. “Fair enough. You want I should cook them too?”
She smirked. “If you’re offering…”
I went toward the cottage, fighting my very bones to move as they resisted.
She took the satchel and sauntered in ahead of me, letting me have a good look at her, and not caring.
*****************
We ate in an oddly companionable silence.
The wine she poured was good but not heady, not that I knew much about them. I was an ale man.
A fire crackled and hissed pleasantly as we sipped out of plain goblets until she broke the silence.
“I remember you.”
“From where?”
“From the Purging.”
Her gaze was assessing, measuring.
I put down the goblet.
“I—“
“You were there. I remember. “
“I was under orders…”
“You laughed. All of you. You ran us down and slaughtered us as you laughed. You pissed on our burning corpses, and laughed.”
I stood. “Melchora…”
“You shouldn’t have come here.”
My skin grew tight. “Melchora!” My voice was higher, lighter than even when I was a boy.
My body changed.
*****************
Brown hair, lank and damp, kept falling into my eyes as I ran, gulping air as the horses bore down on me.
A large heavy fist grabbed some and lifted me off my feet as another cut off my path with his horse.
Whoever grabbed me let me go, and I fell into the dirty mud.
“You’re not going nowhere, witchy-bitch.”
A hand covered my mouth, and two grabbed my kicking legs…
*******************
I woke up hurting, bleeding, coughing blood, my lungs burning, my eyes stinging from the smoke that surrounded me, flames licking at my bloody legs. I reeked of urine, realized it wasn’t mine.
The sound of cheers, the glow of the moon, the heated, fetid breeze brought me to a sharp realization.
They were burning me alive.
“Melchora!”
You shared your life with me, witch hunter; I’ll share my death with you.
Through the darkness, the sound of a soft and evil laugh reached me.
I’d never felt so alone…