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Thalgor’s Witch

Nancy Holland

 

 

Thalgor’s Witch

Copyright © 2018 Nancy Holland

The Tule Publishing Group, LLC

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

ISBN: 978-1-948342-17-9

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Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

The Irish Witch Series

About the Author

Chapter One

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.

“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.

“No, witch.” Thalgor’s voice was thick with pain. “I am not done with you yet.”

“Gurdek!” Thalgor knew his lieutenant would have circled around and returned by now.

He appeared at once, sword drawn.

“Tie her.”

Gurdek eyed the witch, as tall as he, if half as wide, then he looked back at Thalgor, who kept his eyes fixed on the rope at his lieutenant’s waist. With a barely perceptible sigh, Gurdek took the rope and started to cut it in two pieces.

“No. Only tie the witch. The child will stay with her mother.” Thalgor shot a sharp glance at their prisoner. “And the witch will allow it as long as we have her child.”

He wondered if the child’s father lay dead among the dozens of men he had killed this day. The witch did not act like a woman who had just lost her man. But he knew little of what went on between men and women, beyond the most basic.

And she is not a woman, he reminded himself when his blood began to heat at the thought of that most basic.

Perhaps witches did not mourn. Or perhaps this one did not. She surely showed no sign of love toward her child. Not as his mother had on that far ago night when she and his childhood self had hidden from a warrior who found them after all.

The child was the image of her mother–the same oval face with dainty features, the same dark hair pulled back in a long braid, the same large eyes under a strong brow. But the child had darker skin and cat-green eyes with slitted centers.

The witch’s eyes were a pale blue that should have been weak and watery, but instead shone like the sky on a summer morning. Shone with anger as she submitted to the rope.

If not for the child, he was certain, she would fight both him and Gurdek to the death, with her magic or without it. She might even take one of them with her.

Both her courage and her submission made his blood churn in a way that distressed him.

Thalgor lifted himself to his knees, then his feet. He felt the wound heal, but pain still burned a black edge to his vision. Once on his feet, he took an unsteady step forward. He had lost a lot of blood and the witch’s magic had not restored it, but his legs held him. He walked on, as if he never doubted he could, and gestured for Gurdek to follow.

“What do you want with a witch?” Gurdek grumbled with the familiarity of an old comrade as they followed the road toward their camp.

Preoccupied with walking normally despite the pain, Thalgor leered at him in response.

Gurdek knew him too well to settle for such an answer. “You do not allow the men to rape, and even if you wished to take a witch to your bed, you know magic protects witches from men. I doubt this one will give herself to you freely.”

Thalgor’s body heated again with an unwanted vision of the witch struggling beneath him as he buried himself in the soft wetness of her body. But the flash of lust dissolved into memories of all the nights he had lain awake and listened to his mother scream and beg. Revulsion twisted inside him.

He knew now he should never have allowed the vile man they had left behind into the band when he came to them as a starving renegade. What he would do about the depraved pleasure his own imagination had given him Thalgor did not know. He could almost be grateful for his pain, as if it were a magic charm against the danger he might become as cruel as his mother’s tormentor.

“Witches heal,” he replied. “And they have second sight. To know how many warriors an enemy has, and where, could make us invincible.”

“Her second sight did not save the band we defeated today.”

“Perhaps their leader did not listen to her.” He gestured with his sword to the bit of leather still wrapped around the witch’s ankle. “He kept her a slave. Who listens to a slave?”

“But why should she share her gift with us?”

Thalgor looked back at the woman, who walked straight and proud despite the ropes and the child who clung to her cloak. “Perhaps she can be convinced to throw her lot in with ours. It might prove interesting to try.”

A seduction either way, he thought with a shiver of desire.

Erwyn struggled against the indignity of the ropes with small movements she hoped the men could not see in the deepening purple of evening, but she could not free herself. Even if she could, as the panic of the battle faded she realized her plan to flee to the Sea Mountains was worse than hopeless.

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.

“When we leave this meadow, you may come with us and have our protection.” He spoke in the same majestic voice, softer now because his listeners were fewer. “Or you may venture out on your own. You will not be harmed if you stay with us. In any way,” he emphasized as he looked at the women. “But you must work to keep yourselves. Your children will learn our ways. Those women who choose may become the women of our warriors who have none. We do not take slaves.”

The captives stared at him in disbelief, then fell to talking among themselves. The conversations gradually took on clear patterns. Mothers argued with sons old enough to wish to join what warriors might be left from their band to become marauders and seek revenge. Old men argued with women reluctant to leave their men behind if any hope remained that they still lived. All of them hungry, cold, and frightened. All aware the choice Thalgor offered was for most of them a choice between life and death.

Slowly, in ones and twos and family groups, they stepped outside the circle of warriors.

“We are now of you.” The voice of the old man who led them was rough with grief.

Thalgor nodded and gestured for food to be brought to the larger group who had joined his camp, and to the few who remained inside the circle–boys old enough to brave a life on their own, childless women who would leave in the morning to search for their men. A fire was lit for them as well.

Felyn began to cry.

“Let me take her to the other women,” Erwyn urged Gurdek. “She is hungry.”

“You will both eat.” Thalgor had reappeared at her side. “In my tent.”

She looked up into eyes that seemed carved from agate.

“I thought you took no slaves.” She schooled the fear, and that other emotion she had no name for, from her voice.

“We take no human slaves.”

Her blood ran cold, then hot.

“Make sure the men know she is a witch,” he told Gurdek as he took the rope from him.

Then he turned back to Erwyn. “As for the child, without her within my reach, I would not dare keep you in my camp, much less in my tent.”

Erwyn shivered with a fear her magic could not lessen. A dread darker, deeper than of death.

Thalgor saw her fear. He smiled.

Chapter Two

They made slow progress through the camp because the people crowded around Thalgor as they always did, eager to speak to him or even touch the cloak he kept wrapped closely around him to hide his wound. He spoke to those he knew by name, now and then stroked a child’s head as he talked with its parents.

Dara waited for him outside her mother’s tent as she had after every battle since the last cold time. Until recently he had been glad for the distraction from battle and death she provided.

Her cloak hung open to expose the gown pulled tight across her ample breasts. Her lips would taste of the berry juice that stained them red.

“Thalgor.” She smiled at him with hungry eyes.

He could not simply ignore her.

“Dara.”

He gestured for Gurdek to take the witch and her child on to his tent, but the witch refused to follow, and Gurdek was clearly afraid to force her to move. With a shrug, Thalgor turned back to the woman who had until recently been his lover.

“Who’s that?” Dara pointed at the prisoner.

“A witch. I think she might be useful in battle.”

Dara raised one eyebrow, then turned to him with a dismissive shrug. She stroked a hand down his sword arm.

Once her touch would have made him smile in anticipation. Now it irritated, but he didn’t push her hand away.

“I watched the battle from a tree on the hillside.” She paused to lick her lips. “You killed so many men.” She stroked his sword arm again. A familiar flush tinged her face. “And I saw you cut their leader’s head off.”

Her eyes glowed with a desire that always made him uneasy. Now, drenched in his own blood and that of the men he had killed, her passion for battle repelled him more than ever before. He gently pushed her hand away from his weary arm.

“He wounded me in the process. Badly.”

“I don’t see any wound.” Her wide, red mouth formed a pout.

“The witch healed it.”

“Oh. The witch.” Dara turned to where his prisoner watched them and gave her a malevolent smile. “She has a child, and you can’t force a witch. What use is she to you?” Dara rubbed her breasts against his arm.

Her touch chilled him. He took half a step back.

Between that chill and the wound, he feared he would be sick if he didn’t soon make his escape.

“I told you. I think she might be useful in battle.”

“But not in your bed?”

Dara licked her lips, which made her look like nothing so much as a viper. His stomach clenched tighter.

“My wound makes my bed beside the point.” He eased another half step back. “For anyone.”

Dara stroked his sword arm again. His belly churned.

“Perhaps tomorrow? Right after a battle is always best, but I could come to tend your wound…”

“You never tend anything of mine. You refuse to carry my water or cook my food. You only want to be my woman in bed.”

Once that had pleased him well enough. All his lovers knew he only wanted a night’s pleasure now and then. When they wanted more, they chose men who would give them the love he could not. Shame and rage had turned his heart to stone long ago. Dara was the first woman he had tired of before she was ready to move on.

“Isn’t in bed enough?” She stepped closer again. A cold sweat beaded on his brow. “If I stay in my mother’s tent she does the work and I can devote myself to pleasing you.”

“And yourself.”

“Of course.”

She gave her hips a little shake so they made contact with the part of him that interested her most.

He refused to step away again, but pushed her gently back.

“Stay in your mother’s tent, then. All the time.”

She looked up at him in disbelief. Her eyes clouded. Not with hurt, to his relief, but with anger.

“Because of the witch?”

She stood feet apart, hands fisted on her hips. A man who challenged him so would already be dead. The people around them, who had politely pretended not to listen, suddenly turned to stare.

He took a deep breath against the anger. Consider yourself lucky to be rid of her before you got her with child.

“Because I have become tired of you.”

“Tired of me!”

Repulsed by you, he wanted to say, but mindful of the people around them he replied, “Yes.”

“No one gets tired of me. I…”

Dara clearly had more to say. Her lips moved, but no sound came out of her mouth. Her eyes opened wide in surprise, then fear as she turned toward the witch.

The witch smiled.

“Witches can make dangerous enemies,” Thalgor commented when he was certain he could speak without laughing.

Others around them were less restrained. No one guffawed outright, but giggles and snorts moved through the small crowd.

Dara looked around at them, face scarlet with rage, but still couldn’t utter a sound. She made a half move toward the witch, then spun around and disappeared into her mother’s tent.

As she went he saw the witch give a small nod he knew released Dara from the spell.

The witch still smiled. Not an evil smile, but a contented one. The smile told him that fed and happy she might be beautiful.

But what had happened to Dara had made him even more aware of how dangerous it could be to trifle with a witch.

The heat that circled his body and settled low in his belly told him he wanted to do much more than trifle with this one.

Fair warning given, Erwyn turned to follow her captors as they strode on toward Thalgor’s tent, but Felyn refused to take another step. She plopped to the ground and sat like a stone. Tears flowed down her cheeks.

Thalgor and Gurdek both turned to see why their prisoner didn’t respond to the tug of the rope.

“She is too heavy for me to carry,” Erwyn pointed out.

“Tell her to get up and walk.” Thalgor’s tone still echoed with anger from the scene with the woman who clearly was, or recently had been, his lover.

Erwyn’s nose twitched with the urge to turn that anger against him and curse him in some painful and permanent way. She chose instead to bide her time and conserve her powers.

“She’s tired and hungry. Were you never a child? I wouldn’t walk any more, either, if I were she.”

The two men looked at each other. Gurdek opened his mouth as if to say something, but seemed to reconsider Thalgor’s mood and snapped his mouth shut. He handed the rope to the larger man with obvious reluctance and knelt beside the child to lift her to his shoulders with surprising gentleness.

Surprisingly, too, the child allowed him to do it without protest. In hopes of food, Erwyn concluded from a look at the mask-like little face so similar to her own.

Thalgor let Gurdek carry the child past him, then absently tugged on the rope for Erwyn to follow. That was too much. She stood her ground and jerked the rope back, heedless of the pain in her bound wrists.

Thalgor turned to look at her and her heart stalled. He came to within half a step of her, so he towered over her like a fox over a cornered rabbit. She refused to be afraid. She braced her feet apart, as that woman had, and glared at him.

“Don’t challenge me,” he growled. “I owed Dara a certain amount of forgiveness. I owe you nothing.”

He spat the last word out with such vehemence that a few of the people nearby moved gingerly away.

“You owe me nothing,” Erwyn agreed. “Except your life. So much for your gratitude.” She held up her bound hands.

“I let you live.”

“And I let you live.”

As they faced each other Erwyn felt the minds around them wonder. She knew the danger if they wondered too much about their leader’s ability to control a witch. Torn between pride and that danger, she held Thalgor’s gaze until the silent wondering around them grew too loud, then strode past him, head high, to follow Gurdek and the child.

Her surrender took Thalgor so much by surprise the rope almost pulled out of his hands when she reached its length. He recovered quickly and marched along behind her like a herdsman with his beast. He would pay for that, too.

Thalgor’s tent was closest to the huge fire where the ox was roasting. Warriors stood around in small groups, eating battle gruel while they waited for the meat to cook.

Erwyn’s eyes stung from the smoke while her mouth watered at the savory smell of the meat. Food, food, food, her whole body seemed to chant.

Thalgor pulled her to a stop to talk with his men. She allowed it only because she knew any wondering about his ability to control her could be especially dangerous here. Warriors were by nature suspicious of strangers, especially witches.

Gurdek disappeared into Thalgor’s tent with his burden. As soon as the flap closed a wail went up from behind the wall of tight-woven wool. A loud thump, then a string of curses. A small body rocketed from the tent and flew to Erwyn’s side.

Gurdek lumbered after the child, limping slightly.

Erwyn yanked the rope free of hands Thalgor had let relax and turned to face Gurdek, shielding the child with her body. “What did you do to her?”

Thalgor came to her side, but she couldn’t tell if he did it to intimidate her or his comrade.

“I-I…? Nothing,” Gurdek protested.

“She screamed. And she trembles.”

“I did nothing.” He appealed past her to Thalgor, who made an impatient noise low in his throat.

“As soon as we were in the tent,” Gurdek explained, “she started to wail and pounded on my head. When I tried to put her down, she kicked me in the chest so hard I fell over.”

“I see,” Thalgor murmured with barely concealed amusement as he took the rope and tugged more gently for Erwyn to follow. The child came, too, clutching her cloak.

“So, the daughter is as fierce as the mother. Is she a witch as well?” Thalgor asked Erwyn.

Danger lurked behind any possible answer to that question. Before she could decide which danger was least, she saw a tall, thin young man come around the corner of Thalgor’s tent.

The archer who had killed her aunt.

He must have recognized her, too, because he gasped, and his face went white with horror, as it had when her aunt fell.

She stopped in front of him. The young man’s hand went to the knife on his belt.

“A knife isn’t much use against a witch, Rygar,” Thalgor said casually. “But I will not let her harm you.”

You can’t stop me, she wanted to say, but his warriors still listened.

And while she glared, she did not intend to harm the young man. He had not meant to kill an old woman who only fled the battle. Still, Erwyn did not want him to think she would ever forget, or ever forgive him.

“Will you eat with me, Rygar?” Thalgor asked the archer.

“Does the witch eat with you?”

“Tonight, yes.”

“Then I will not. Thank you.”

As Rygar left, Erwyn felt the guilt gnaw inside him. Perhaps Thalgor sensed it, too, because he gave her a questioning look.

What linked the two men? Rygar was too old to be Thalgor’s son. A man-lover? No. Not alike enough for brothers. She shrugged the question off and followed Thalgor into his tent.

A single torch dimly lit the dark space inside. Gurdek, who had come in after them, took it to light the others around the room, then lit the braziers by each of the four doorways. Shadows danced on the pale brown ox hide roof.

The growing light revealed a large room dominated by a massive table at its center. Benches surrounded it on three sides, with a large chair on the fourth. More benches lined the walls. Three sets of curtains marked three rooms similar to the anteroom where they had entered, one on each side. The tent was similar enough to her uncle’s she could guess the two side rooms would be sleeping chambers, the one across the room a scullery and larder that led to a small cooking fire outside.

The glow of the torches glinted off the gold inlay on the carved chair opposite them and a small pile of gold and a rainbow of jewels on the table. Taken from the defeated band, but displayed far more carelessly than they had been in her former captor’s tent, or her uncle’s before that.

Thalgor let the inner curtain fall behind them. The double walls kept out the cold and deadened the sounds outside. The sudden warmth and quiet, the flicker of light made it seem as if they had stepped into another world, both eerie and familiar.

No wonder the child had screamed and run away. She still clung, trembling, to one of Erwyn’s tied hands. Erwyn turned her hand in the ropes to cup the child’s face in an awkward, almost involuntary effort to comfort her.

“You never told me if she is also a witch.” Thalgor sat on the bench in front of them and drew his knife from its sheath.

Frightened into honesty, Erwyn replied, “I don’t know.”

He stopped. The edge of the knife glimmered in mid-air.

“I don’t think so,” she added under the prod of his stare.

“How could you not know if your man was of witch blood?” He pulled her hand from the child’s grasp and cut the ropes in a single stroke that froze Erwyn’s heart with fear.

She rubbed her sore wrists and waited for her heart to start to beat normally again.

“Or don’t you know who her father was?”

She chose the risk of defiance over the pain of confession and remained silent.

Gurdek disappeared through the curtain in the back of the tent and returned with a bowl of gruel. An old woman carried in two more bowls behind him.

Despite the age lined on her face and the silver braid over her shoulder, the woman walked straight, with more pride than Erwyn would have expected from a servant.

“Rygar?” the old woman asked in lieu of a greeting.

“No, Gee,” Thalgor answered. “Your pet fears my witch.”

The woman set the bowls on the table. She looked Erwyn up and down, then her warm brown eyes came to rest on the child.

Despite her age, she crouched down and held out a hand. “Come here, girl.”

Much to Erwyn’s surprise, the child went to Gee, who sat her on one of the benches by the table and pushed a bowl of gruel toward her. With a cry of delight, the girl began to eat while the old woman beamed happily down at her.

Gurdek claimed another of the benches, and ate, too.

“Which of us do you mean to starve?” Thalgor pointed lazily at the single remaining bowl. “Me or the witch?”

The old woman frowned at him and went out again. She came back with another bowl of gruel and a piece of honeycomb on a plate, which she put on the table near the child.

Thalgor gave a huff of laughter as he took off his cloak. Gee took one look at the blood-soaked bandage, went into one of the side chambers and brought him back a clean tunic. He pulled it on before he sat at the table and began to eat.

Erwyn took the last bowl from the table and sat on one of the benches by the wall, well away from Thalgor and the child.

Suddenly the noise that seeped through the walls from around the campfire outside grew louder.

“Meat.” Gee grinned and hurried out.

The sounds of the happy camp outside flooded briefly in. When the tent flap fell, it plunged the room back into quiet. Erwyn felt very much alone with the child and the two men. More alone when the child emptied her bowl, quickly chewed up the honeycomb, and fell asleep curled up on the hard wooden bench.

Gurdek wolfed his food down with an occasional wary glance at Erwyn. Thalgor simply ate as if no one else were there.

Erwyn sniffed the savory mixture of crushed grain, herbs, and vegetable broth. She had to curb the urge to bolt it down as the child had.

She scraped the last of the thin gruel from the bowl as Gee returned with a platter of meat and set it on the table by Thalgor. Gurdek pulled out his knife, cut a huge piece of roasted flesh, then began to devour it. The old woman sat beside him and held out a plate where he put a smaller slice of meat.

Erwyn was shocked by their brazenness. In the camp of her captors, everyone ate by rank. The same had been true in her own camp. Her uncle had eaten, and her aunt, then his lieutenants, the warriors, the old men and the older boys, finally the other women and children. Often there was only gruel for them. In very bad years, some of the women and children had died from hunger, even when her father led the band. Some might go hungry in Thalgor’s camp, but perhaps the children would not starve.

Thalgor drew his knife and cut a large piece of meat. He surprised her even more when he walked over to drop it in her now empty bowl. He looked down at her expectantly.

“Thank you.” The words nearly choked her.

He barked a laugh, then cut a piece for himself.

The roasted meat melted in her mouth, and filled her belly with warm comfort. She wanted to gobble it up, too, but ate slowly to savor every bite.

When Gurdek finished, he muttered something about the need to post guards and left. Gee gathered up the dishes and went into the scullery. Erwyn was left alone with Thalgor and the child. She stood with a sigh and went to wake her charge.

But nothing she did could rouse the girl. Erwyn sat on the bench next to her and buried her hands in her hair in frustration.

“Let her sleep there,” Thalgor suggested quietly.

“She’ll wake up in the night and set up a wail when she realizes she’s in a strange place.”

“Are you sure you can’t carry her to bed?”

She stared at him and probed his mind to see why he sounded angry. A wall protected his thoughts from her.

Witch blood! This man carried witch blood so powerful it was almost a presence in the room.

An icy chill ran through her. The same witch blood that protected his thoughts from her could open her mind to him, unless she remained constantly on her guard against him.

Almost as if she felt the impact of Erwyn’s dismay, the child stirred, whimpered and sat up, blinking slightly.

“Come,” Erwyn said coolly. “Which way?”

Thalgor gave her a black look and started to say something, but instead he gestured to the side of the tent opposite where Gee had fetched his clean tunic.

Erwyn led the child through the drape that separated the sleeping chamber from the main room. A single torch lit the comfortable space. She put the child on the bed along one wall. The girl fell asleep at once, Erwyn’s hand held tight in hers.

Erwyn waited a while before she pulled her hand free gently so as not to wake the child. When she looked up, Thalgor stood in the doorway, a leather strap in his hand.

Her heart began to race, not with fear but with a mixture of dread and excitement she’d never felt before. She took a step backward and almost toppled over the sleeping child.

He stopped her fall and pulled her closer to him.

Close enough in the half-light that she saw his face had tightened, not with desire, but with anger. Her heart skidded to a halt after all, paused, then resumed its frantic rhythm.

“You are an unnatural mother.” He stepped away from her. “Is that true of all witches?”

Pain shot through her at the sudden reminder of her mother’s love, but she gave no sign.

“Witches are unnatural,” she replied.

He cursed under his breath, then gestured for her to sit on the bed on the wall opposite the child. Unsure of his intent, but confident in her power to protect herself with magic if necessary, she complied.

To her surprise, he fell to one knee in front of her and lifted her foot. The same foot he had branded with his icy touch in the forest now burned beneath his fingers. He freed it of her sandal, pulled a rope from his belt and tied one end of it around her ankle.

“They say our ancestors lived in stone houses.” He stooped to tie the other end of the rope to a post by the doorway. “But we live in tents, and tents are easily escaped from. You know now I would not harm your child, if only because the old woman would not let me, so I must find another way to keep you here. Your hands,” he commanded as he stood.

The strap dangled from his hand. Her heart beat wildly.

“You mean me to think you cannot untie a rope?” he asked.

Still she sat silent, hands clasped in her lap.

“I will not have to bind you if you sleep in my chamber.”

“Sleep?”

“Among other things.”

His arrogant smile would probably have had any other woman in his bed in a heartbeat.

Not Erwyn. Arrogant men–the father who had not believed, the uncle who had not listened–had already cost her both mother and home.

With cold dignity, she lifted her hands to him.

After he bound her wrists with the leather, more loosely than Gurdek had with the rope, he left her alone with the child.

He must have known, as her previous captor had quickly learned, that her magic could not burn leather as it could rope. She would have to undo the knots.

When she finally succeeded, Thalgor’s people still laughed and sang by the fire outside. Drums beat a dance rhythm. Happy chatter and the sound of pipes crept in through the tent wall.

Her hands freed, she could make herself invisible to take some food and escape, but she would have to leave the child behind. She knew now no harm would come to the girl, but she had made a vow to her dying mother.

With a sigh, she lay back on the bed to wait until the camp was quiet, so she would be able to take the girl with her.

The day had begun before dawn and every moment of it had been hard. Long before the camp fell silent, she slept.

She dreamed her mother floated toward her across the sea. When the vision threw back its hood, she saw, not her mother’s face, but that of a young man about the age of Rygar with Thalgor’s body–even taller and more muscular than the archer’s–and Thalgor’s face, but dark hair and eyes as blue as her own.

“Who are you?” she asked, as the vision stepped from sea foam to sand.

“I am the Witch King.” His voice was both tender and sad.

She shook her head. “You are a man.”

“I am the Witch King.”

“What do you want of me?”

“You must stay in this camp.”

Her heart began to pound. “You know I cannot.”

“You must. For my sake.”

Confusion swirled around her like the fog that rose from the stormy sea behind the vision.

“I cannot. I must take the child to the Wise Witches.”

“Stay for the sake of the child.”

“No. She has already cost me too much.”

“And what have you cost her?” A single tear traced a path down his cheek.

“Who are you?” she asked again.

“Stay for your own sake.”

“I can’t,” she sobbed.

Then he disappeared. His absence felt like a death.

She awoke just before dawn, her face wet with tears. Thalgor stood beside her. He silently retied the leather strap around her wrists and left her to sleep again.

Thalgor sat at the table, discussing their next move with Rygar, Gurdek, and the rest of his council when the witch emerged from her chamber. Dark circles beneath those clear blue eyes showed the hours she’d spent in the effort to free herself. Silently she raised her hands.

Gee played a stone game with the child nearby. At his nod the old woman went and untied his prisoner’s wrists. Once freed, the witch undid the rope from her ankle and threw the free end into the chamber behind her.

When Gee went into the scullery to get her breakfast, the witch did not take the old woman’s place beside the child as he expected, but stood where she was and rubbed her wrists.

The memory of how he had frightened her with his knife the night before shamed him. The ropes had been necessary, but not the terror in her eyes. This woman–this witch–pulled something evil out of his soul. He would have liked to think she put it there, but he knew better.

The child whimpered.

“Go to her,” he ordered the witch, angry on the child’s behalf more than his own.

The witch stayed where she was. “You have already said I am an unnatural mother.”

“My grandmothers were both witches. From what I remember they were as loving as any grandmothers.”

“I am not her grandmother.”

His men snorted with surprised laughter. Even Thalgor had to admire his prisoner’s spirit, and her wisdom in knowing she need not pretend she was under his control with these men, whose loyalty to him was unshakable.

“Does your child have a name?”

Why was the witch so driven to protect the girl, despite the cold way she treated her? And why did she pause before she answered such a simple question?

“Felyn,” she finally said.

“Can she talk?”

The witch stepped between him and the child as if to fend off a physical attack.

“Of course she can talk.”

“I haven’t heard her speak. And those slitted eyes…I thought she might be a half-wit.”

“She speaks–and hears–perfectly well.” His prisoner tipped her head toward the child.

Thalgor felt an unwelcome shudder of recognition. He, too, had refused to speak after he and his mother were captured. Until he had been made to.

“Has her mother a name?” he asked to erase the memory.

The witch paused again before she answered, long enough for his witch blood to warn him she might not be the child’s mother after all.

“I am Erwyn.”

Gee came in then from the scullery with a bowl of their morning gruel, rich with sheep’s milk and dried berries.

“Ah, here is your food. Eat it and be silent. We are in council and women do not speak in council.”

The witch began to protest, but when Gee handed her the bowl, she took it and sat on the bench by the door, well away from where the old woman played with the child.

He turned his attention back to his lieutenants.

“You were saying we should move south,” he prompted Gurdek. “Why?”

“We will find more forage for our livestock there. And my men fight better when it is not so dark and cold.”

“So we should move south because your men fear the dark?” Batte challenged, only half in jest. He was not much older than Thalgor, a blond, wiry man, his handsome face marked by a jagged scar that ran from one side of his nose almost to his shoulder, a reminder of a long-ago battle they had nearly lost.

“Better than to move north,” Gurdek half-joked in return, “where there are so many mountains and caves for raiding parties to hide simply because your men don’t like to sweat.”

“Why not stay where we are?” asked Rygar, always the peacemaker. “It will take time to assimilate all we took in the last battle–people, animals, and goods–into our camp. Let us rest here a while.”

“Too exposed,” Thalgor said. “And the grass grows thin. We must move our herds farther away each day to graze.”

“East, toward the forest,” Gurdek’s second suggested. “Our women and children can hide there if we are attacked.”

“If we aren’t attacked from the shelter of the forest itself.” Batte’s second was prone to contradiction like his leader. “I say west, toward the moor. No one goes there.”

“For good reason.” Thalgor studied the map while the others continued to debate. Finally he made a decision. “South.”

The others nodded, Batte more slowly than the rest.

“We move in two days.”

“No!”

The witch stood behind Rygar, staring over his shoulder at the map.

Chapter Three

No?” Thalgor asked the witch, more puzzled than angry.

“There is danger to the south. You must move north.”

“North? Toward the Sea Mountains?”

She nodded.

“So you can more easily escape to the citadel of the Wise Witches?” He drew a circle with his finger around the mountains on the map. “Do you think I am a fool?”

“You are a fool if you ignore my warning and move south.”

He took a deep breath to ease the anger that burned inside him. Had he not told her women did not speak at his council? Yet she openly called him a fool.

Unable to see her thoughts, he found trust hard. And the cold way she treated her child rankled. As did the curl of unwelcome lust low in his belly.

“A warning based on what? We send scouts in all directions each day. They have found no large forces anywhere. It makes the most sense to move south where there is more feed for our animals.”

The witch closed her eyes to look into the future–or to make him think she did.

“Two small raiding parties can be as dangerous as one large one.” The blue eyes opened and met his fearlessly. “Not enough men to capture your camp, but enough to weaken you badly for the next raiding party or band of marauders that comes along.”

“Lies,” Gurdek spat.

“Do not listen to the witch,” Batte, for once, agreed.

“Did you not take me captive because of my power to see as well as my power to heal?”

“I do not know yet if you see, or see truly. But I do know two things. We are strong enough to resist any raiding party. Or any two. And you have good reason to trick me into going north.”

“I could escape more easily in the chaos of battle.”

“Or be killed, or captured by someone who would be much less kind to you than I.”

“You mean to die in either case.”

Her quiet defiance sent a strange thrill through him, but the distrust of witches was stronger.

“Why would you help us? We killed your men, captured your people.”

“They were not my people, any more than yours are.” A look of remembered loss softened the witch’s face.

He wondered for a moment if she was even old enough to be the child’s mother. Perhaps a very young witch could be taken by force after all. That might explain her coldness toward the child, and her uncertainty whether the girl was a witch.

Yet he remembered all too well how his mother had loved the child she bore to the brute who had captured them.

The possibility that Erwyn might also have been raped cut open old scars carved deep into his heart, reminding him of the cost of love. He pushed the unwanted memories away.

“Still, why should I trust that you wish to help us?”

The witch’s face went cold again. “I only tell what I see.”

“Why allow the witch to speak at all?” Batte grumbled, turning his back to them both.

She pulled herself up taller. “I tell you, you must move north. Tomorrow.”

“And I tell you, you must be silent and let us decide based on what is, not what might be.”

“What will be.”

“Silence!”

He stood and leaned over the map toward her. The move brought him close enough that he smelled the sweet woman’s scent of her body. His eyes fell against his will to the mound of her breasts as they rose and fell under her gown with each angry breath. Blood rushed through his ears, then flooded lower to harden his body with a burning want he could not wish away.

“Fool!” she spat at him.

“Get out!” He threw his arms wide toward her.

She picked up her cloak, wrapped it around her, and strode out of the tent. The child ran after her, and Gee followed them.

“A witch is nothing but trouble,” Gurdek commented quietly.

The others nodded in another rare moment of harmony.

Erwyn stood outside the tent and took deep breaths to calm herself. She took strength from the icy breeze in her hair, the dim sunlight on her face. The child came to play nearby and hummed tunelessly to herself. Gee watched them from a stool by the door and chatted with the other women who passed by.

At noon Gee went to feed the men who still met inside and Erwyn took her place on the stool. She must have dozed because suddenly Thalgor stood over her. His shadow chilled her.

“Do witches do no work?”

“I have worked today. I saw. That is more than heavy work. I saw, and you did not listen to my warning. My uncle did not listen either. He insisted his scouts knew more about what the enemy might do than I did. You might learn from his mistake. His arrogance cost me my home.”

Her uncle’s camp had not truly been her home since her mother’s death, but this man would care little about that.

“Did the leader of the band we defeated not listen either, or did you tell him convincing lies, as you tell me?”

“He feared me. Another lesson you might consider. He feared me, and he did not ask.”

“Nor did I.”

She stared off into the bustling camp. “Do you know what it is to be a slave?”

“Yes.”

The word carried so much pain she almost asked him the story behind it, but she knew he would not tell her.

“If I had spoken to him as I did to you today, he would have killed me by the second word.”

Dark memories still shadowed his face. “Were you so sure I would not?”

“All praise you for not taking slaves. I merely hoped you would not treat even a witch in such a way.”

“I would not kill you, no, but…” He let the words hang between them for a long moment, then said sharply, “Get up.”

“If you were truly evil,” she told him as she slowly stood, “I could turn that evil against you to make you so sick you’d wish for death. But you are merely bad tempered, so you are safe for now. A shame.”

She pictured his wound in her mind and tightened it. His hand went to his chest to rub away the ache.

“Ingratitude is close to true evil,” she added.

When she eased the tightness again, Thalgor looked puzzled for a moment, then dropped his hand.

“After you eat, follow the old woman and help her get water,” he ordered in a softer tone. “Do not try to stray. You won’t get far, and tomorrow I will have to hobble you with leather.”

Erwyn shuddered inside at the reminder of her recent enslavement. “The child?”

“Will stay with me.” He looked at Felyn and nodded.

To Erwyn’s surprise, the child gravely nodded back.

“We ate together this morning while you still slept, and I taught her a game.”

“Then you knew she is no half-wit.”


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