Lost Characters and Forgotten Passages
I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil. — Truman Capote
For those who have read Sorrow's Child, these passages, featuring Mary and the Red Witch, now precede the first novel in The Taint series. Much of the world building has changed, but key characters and situations may be recognised. I'll admit to having found it hard to cut these passages, Mary and the Red Witch were two of my favourite characters, but the manuscript needed rewriting, and the trilogy itself reworking. So I've added them to my website for interest sake....
The lantern cast its weak and wavering light onto the ceiling’s pitted surface. As Mary looked for patterns within the crumbling plaster—her mind lost in small thoughts—the bed beneath her rocked rhythmically, the repetitive movement a reminder of her customer’s unfinished business.
Shifting her weight to ease an aching muscle, Mary turned her face aside to avoid her customer’s mouth, the thought of his intended kiss repulsing her. Thwarted, the man buried his face into the nape of Mary’s neck, biting and slobbering in renewed drunken passion. But she could have told the fool that his coin would be wasted and his seed unspent. He had barely managed to stagger to the top of the stairs and into the room, and even then his manhood had to be coaxed into reluctant life, his mind clearly driven by a lust that his flesh did not share.
As the patron’s sudden energy waned again, his callused hands, stained dark by tanner’s dyes, groped at Mary’s breasts in a futile attempt to revive his flagging ardour. Then, as his manhood shrank within her, his shaggy head flopped down and his body sprawled forwards, trapping Mary beneath him. A second later muffled snores sounded.
His dead weight crushed her, forcing the air from her lungs. Mary pinched a flabby, white arm. The snores grew louder; deep rumbles that emerged in rank and putrid exhalations; the overpowering stench of rotting teeth, vomit and sour wine.
Pushing the man’s head aside, she clambered out from underneath him. Mary stood upon the rough wooden floor and rearranged the skirts of her faded blue dress; the colour transformed by time and wear to a drab shade of grey. She wiped her face then combed her hands through her hair. Long, lank, black and grey strands clung to her fingers before falling to the floor.
Mary looked at the customer’s discarded breeches then picked them up, searching the pockets until finding his money bag. She weighed the pouch in her hand, judging its worth against the effort of her labours. The man was a stranger, a traveller from a distant town, not kin, not kind. A whore’s life was hard. Few would condemn her if she now took more than her due...
After removing six copper coins, three times her usual fee, Mary replaced the pouch. She had left him enough for food and lodgings, but if he remained asleep here, she doubted he would rise the richer for it. With a slight shrug at the stranger’s stupidity, Mary left the room, closing the door behind her with a loud slam.
In the dimness of the corridor two figures sat, sharing a grimy bottle. The woman’s stained red dress was rucked up around her hips, enabling her patron to casually sample her wares while he sipped at the bottle’s sharp smelling liquid. The brunette looked up as Mary walked passed. ‘All done then Mary?’ she asked in a tired and weary voice.
‘Give ‘im a moment,’ Mary replied.
‘Watch out love,’ the woman warned as Mary walked down the corridor towards the stairs. ‘He’s in a right mood.’
Noise engulfed Mary as she walked down the creaking stairs and into the busy tavern. Both fires roared in their blackened hearths and a layer of smoke, from pipe and wood, filled the upper reaches of the room. She approached the scarred, grime-covered bar, the surface awash with dark red wine and ale. A figure crouched behind the bar, his back turned, intent on lugging a barrel from the cellar. The inn keeper finished his task and turned around to see Mary watching him. He raised a meaty fist and his reddened face seemed to swell. ‘Why I ought ta…!’
As Mary’s two copper coins clattered onto the bar, the innkeeper’s snarl became a smile. He pushed a tray towards her, then filled three large, pewter tankards with watery looking ale, then poked a fat finger in the direction of a table close to the furthermost fire. His grunt completed the interaction. Mary lifted the tray and began to weave her way between the tables and chairs, talk rising around her as she travelled through the boozy throng.
A shout came from near the tavern door. ‘Ale! And make it quick!’
The sound of a fist thumping against a table. ‘I’ve said it all along! The bastard’s bewitched!’ The voice was loud and filled with the heat of drunken indignation. ‘Word is, the Red Witch is carrying ‘is whelp...’ The words faded into a whisper.
‘How ‘bout it, Mary?’ A gentle tug on her hand. ‘I’ll fix you up next pay day. You know I’m as good as my word...’
Mary shook her head and walked on, imparting a brief flicker of a smile. The man was a regular, and not one to offend, but promises didn’t put food on the table. She held herself to that; it was part of an inner code that had helped her to survive. And now, twenty eight years after her birth to a poverty-stricken whore, and eighteen years since her own introduction to the profession, Mary liked to think she had gained some sense of stability in her life: a consistent partner, a room in the poorhouse run by Priestesses of the Triple Goddess, bed and blankets, the things that softened the harsh realities of life, things that others took for granted.
Placing the tray upon the table, Mary distributed the tankards then stepped back, ready to receive the proffered coins, but the customer grasped her hand and jerked her towards him, slurring a foul-mouthed offer. Mary struggled to free herself from the painful grasp. The man’s dark eyes held a gleam of cruelty, and in his brawny arms and fists the threat of violence only he would enjoy. Mary shook her head in negation and wrenched her hand free. Let the other women have the angry and the twisted, no matter how much coin was offered. Better the safe and the simple, the oafs and drunkards, the straying husbands and the lust-filled boys who could afford no better. This too was part of her code.
By Mary’s own reckoning she had two or three good years before the pickings grew slim, and the resulting coin too scarce to survive. Although she remained free of blight or pox, thanks to an old charm her mother had given her on the evening of Mary’s introduction to Meda’s oldest trade, she knew that time and hardship had exacted from her body their bitter toll. While her stomach remained flat and without the extra flesh of those who had borne children, her small breasts had begun to sag and her face to wrinkle and crease.
And when her body and looks had faded altogether...Mary’s mind shied away from the pictures her mind drew, of an old age endured in constant hunger, without wood for the fire or warmth by which to stave off the fierce cold of Duir winters. She was saving. Her pile of hoarded coin grew by the day; hidden carefully, so that no one, not even Thomas, could find it.
And so it was, with her future heavy in her mind, that Mary walked with an exaggerated sway to her narrow hips and a seductive smile on her face that was in no way reflected in her lifeless, hazel eyes. The evening flowed on for Mary, another patient parting of thighs, another coin saved. A frantic fumble with an over-eager boy straight in from his father’s outlying land resulted in an unexpected bounty as excitement blinded the boy’s eye to the colour of his coin, so that he gave the whore silver instead of copper.
After six, glinting coins of her freely earned wealth were added to the avaricious innkeeper’s own bounty, the man responded by alleviating Mary of her barmaid duties for the night, leaving her to walk the tables unhindered, in search of continued patronage.
Then, well before closing time, when the surge of customers began to slow, and hours from Mary’s usual finishing time, the innkeeper stopped her as she returned, bone weary and hollow eyed from the rooms above. ‘You’ve had a good’un. Time to call it quits,’ he said, and for a second, Mary thought she saw something close to pity in his eyes. ‘Go home Mary...’ he said, and turned his back.
Slightly surprised by the odd turn in a man not prone to kindness, Mary walked through the inn’s dark kitchen, and retrieved her threadbare cloak and thick, woollen scarf from the hook near the back door. She draped the cloak around her shoulders and wrapped the scarf around her neck and face, leaving only her eyes and the top of her head exposed. Clasping the cloak tightly, Mary thrust the door open and stepped outside.
The snowstorm that had accompanied her arrival at the Red Warrior many hours ago had raged its wrathful way to the west. A crescent moon shone down from the star filled sky, the air was fresh and icy cold. With the newly fallen snow crunching under the worn soles of her rabbit skin boots, Mary made her way through the deserted Common, the noise from the tavern receding behind her. Food and warmth occupied Mary’s thoughts, and the chance to wash the night’s grime from her skin. But each morning this past week, when she had returned home from the Red Warrior through sleet and snow, she had found that Thomas had not gathered wood for the fire, nor water with which to wash. And then, the night before last, he had not returned home at all.
Mary had asked him no questions upon his return. He had offered her no answers. Yet something had become strained by his unexplained absence, and Mary’s perpetual worry as to her lover’s possible flight had grown. She had always hidden her vulnerability. Never talking to him of need, or of love, never placing that burden upon his shoulders. And now, if Thomas’ feelings for her had dwindled since they had met in the tavern, five years ago, Mary did not wish to know. Only let him stay by her side.
As Mary turned onto the Valley road, the night-time noises of the town’s poor quarter flowed out to meet her from the tumble-down dwellings on her left. Leaving them behind her, she passed the cross-roads and turned off the road at the familiar path to the poorhouse. With few tenants able to afford the oil for lanterns, the building was dimly lit. Smoke billowed out of the chimneys to hang heavily in the air, bringing a pervasive scent of burning wood and dung. On either side of the narrow, dirt path that led to the building’s front door, stunted fruit trees, blighted by snow and frost, struggled against their winter burden, adding to the general feeling of neglect, while stray cats squatted in the soured earth that once held the Priestess’ hopes of flowering border gardens, the feral felines’ yellow eyes glowing in the moonlight as Mary walked by.
Climbing up the grey stone steps, Mary opened the door, passing under the lintel, carved with the relief of the Triple Goddess as Virgin, Mother and Crone. Inside, the corridor was dark, and dank with the smells of refuse and old food that crept out from under the stout, oaken doors. With bones and muscles aching, Mary walked on, then ascended the inner stairs to the floor above, turning right into the corridor and so to her room.
Food. Then sleep. The wash could wait until morning.
Mary opened the door.
The room was warm and dark, a faint red light radiating out from the hearth. A woman’s scent lay heavy in the air; heady, sweet and cloying, and a low groaning sound emanated from the region of the bed.
Sudden comprehension hit, and Mary found herself frozen.
‘Thomas. No. Please...’ she whispered. Mary walked to the fire and threw a handful of kindling onto the embers. As the dry wood ignited, orange light flared in the small space.
Thomas struggled upright, then sat unrepentant; a scowl on his thick jawed face, the woman lay by his side, her naked body flushed from their coupling.
Mary stood still, too shocked to act, the pain inside her rendering her speechless.
‘What you have to come home early for? Huh?’ Thomas snarled. ‘Stupid bitch, you’ve gone an’ spoilt everything.’
‘Thomas?’ Mary’s voice trembled.
‘What? Who are you to speak?’ he spat in return. ‘You’re a whore, Mary! Complete strangers fuck you every night. You tell me the difference!’
The woman turned to look at Mary and her plump red lips parted in a sly smile.
‘It’s different! You know it is! Thomas...’ Mary pleaded.
‘Why Mary?! Why is it?!’
‘I don’t enjoy it!’
‘Never? Not even when we met? Don’t you remember Mary; you seemed to like it well enough then. Or was that all apart of the service?’
‘You know it wasn’t! Why Thomas? Didn’t I treat you well? I paid the Priestesses for our room, I kept you fed...’
‘You’re a cold woman, Mary. Who can blame a man for looking for a bit of warmth elsewhere?’ Thomas smirked, and the woman beside him began to laugh; high, shrill and grating.
As that mocking sound rang in her head, something inside Mary snapped. The scene before her was all too clear--her lover, her bed, her linen, her room...With a scream of rage Mary threw herself at the woman, flailing at the soft white flesh, pulling, scratching and biting in savage fury.
The tattooed knuckles of her lover’s fist impacted with the side of Mary’s head.
As she staggered back, her mouth open in surprise, the fist struck again. Fire burst across her cheek and lip, and a brief, sickening wave of blackness descended. As her vision returned, with an arm raised to shield her face from the rapid blows, Mary scrambled backwards.
Sobbing wildly, she searched for something with which to protect herself. Then her fingers closed around the iron poker that rested against the soot-covered stones of the hearth.
And as Thomas grinned and pulled back his fist to hit her again, Mary swung the poker down on her errant lover’s head.
Thomas slumped still and silent at her feet.
As the blood that pooled beneath his cracked head began to flow towards her, Mary stepped back. ‘What have I done?’ she whimpered and reached out a hand, only to pull it back. ‘Gods. What have I done?’
A flurry of movement and the woman was away and out the door, but Mary made no attempt to stop her. Instead she continued to stare at Thomas’ lifeless form in stunned disbelief, unable to accept what had just happened, struggling to comprehend the consequences of her actions. Then reality crashed down like an icy avalanche, burying hope beneath its weight.
Mary knew that she had to run.
She didn’t stop to gather her possessions, or to consider anything other than the need to flee quickly. On the Isle of the Stag King the law was swift and brutal. Mary harboured no illusions—Thomas’ murder would see her hang. Running out the door, she glanced around before hurtling down the stairs and into the corridor. The noise of the fateful argument seemed to have roused little interest from her hardened neighbours. Too late Mary realised that she should have closed and locked the door to her room, to delay the discovery of the body and to grant her time to escape. But there was no going back now.
Pausing at the main door, Mary rewrapped her scarf around her head. She opened the door and peered outside, before quietly slipping into the night. A furtive glance to either side, then she hurried along the side of the building and around the back. Mary ran through the long grass that poked through the fresh snow, then climbed over the remains of an old, wooden fence and ran across the open space beyond. She moved quickly. Avoiding the moonlight. Terrified of detection. It was not until she had entered the relative safety of a thick copse of birch saplings that bordered the river, that Mary finally slowed her step.
Her carefully hoarded coin would aid her escape. But where should she go? The only other town of a reasonable size was Port Duir, and once there she would have to establish herself again. A newcomer, with no regular customers. For a woman of her years, the prospect was not heartening. But then she had little alternative and no other skills on which to fall back on. Fate dictated that she remain a whore.
The soft cover of fresh snow masked the ground, and Mary’s worn boots grew quickly sodden and her toes numb. As she travelled deeper into the tree-cover, the cry of a lone wolf rose up and Mary froze, searching the darkness that lay between the closely clustered trunks, her breath held in horrified expectancy at what she might see. Had she not been led by desperation, she would not have come here tonight. She had always timed her visits carefully, coming at dawn or twilight, avoiding townsfolk foraging for food and wood, and wary of the fell creatures that were rumoured to prowl the wilds at night. But there was nothing for it, she needed to retrieve her coin.
Moonlight sparkled on the surface of the nearby river where the Snowmelt roared its turbulent way from the Dagda Mountains to the distant sea. And although she knew that wolves had not been sighted this close to High Vale since the river last froze over, six years ago now, as the beast howled again Mary trembled, and her heart beat wildly. She ran the remaining distance to the base of the three, large boulders, then turned around and looked carefully behind her. Assured that no one had followed, Mary forced her way through a narrow crevice in the rocks.
Standing in the darkness of the hollow between stone and wood, Mary reached up to where spreading mistletoe partially covered the twisted trunk of an old oak tree. Ignoring the scratch of the spikes, she pushed the mistletoe aside, searching within the cavernous hole in oak’s thick trunk, her questing fingers delving beneath the layers of dried moss and bark until she located a small, cloth-covered shape. Mary withdrew the package.
She undid the cloth and felt the iron coin box, reassured by its solidity and weight. The box had cost her an entire silver coin, a sum far greater than Mary had been willing to give, but it was the only way to ensure that her wealth remain safe from Witches and malicious spirits of the wood. Refolding the cloth, Mary clutched the box tightly and retraced her steps back through the boulders, and into the wood.
Where now? As Mary considered her options her step faltered. The King’s road led to Port Duir, but it would be foolhardy to travel by night. The journey would be dangerous enough, even by the light of day. But Thomas’ body may have already been discovered.
Then she would have to wait here, in the woods, until the morning. But where? Glancing back at the boulders, Mary realised that she could do no worse than the hollow.
And as Mary turned around to leave, from behind her there came the sound of someone sighing.
Cold dread seized her; heart, breath and limbs. Nameless horrors resurfaced from within her soul’s ancient spiral of memories; hideous terror that came on talon and on wing. But then as a warm wind caressed her, bringing with it the scent of spring blossoms, Mary’s fear melted, and the ashes of hope that lay abandoned within her stirred with the semblance of new life.
The word formed in her mind like a whisper, a gentle naming underlain with understanding and compassion. Mary turned around.
A vision stood before her. A sublime creature of ice and snow. Impossibly tall, long of limb, slender of hip and shoulder, clothed in clouds of flurrying snowflakes, with long glacial tresses flowing in the winds of her own omnipotence, concealing all but a glimmer of her face; luminous skin devoid of earthly feature or form.
Not a Mortal. Not a spirit or a Witch.
The Divinity reached down, the tips of her crystalline fingers soft, like fine white petals as she stroked Mary’s wan and pitted cheek.
Mary sank to her knees, the coin box dropping from her hands. ‘Achaiva! Virgin Spinner!’ she cried in her sudden realisation of the Goddess’s identity. ‘Spare me! I did not mean to take his life. I acted only to save my own...’
In a swirl of snowflakes the vision of the Divinity glided away. Mary found herself on her feet, treading across the trackless snow in the Goddess’s wake. With the crescent moon bathing Achaiva with lucent intensity, the Goddess stopped by the side of the raging river and raised an alabaster hand to point towards a small, white object that was caught in the water’s chilly current. Abruptly the turbulent river slowed and the object floated nearer.
As Mary struggled to understand what the Goddess was trying to show her, the pale shape resolved into the form of a fragile blossom, the creamy-white petals crushed and bruised and the fresh green stem broken. Then the Snowmelt was roaring again, the blossom caught up in that forceful passage soon to vanish from sight.
‘I...I...I don’t understand...’ Mary stuttered. ‘What is it you wish for me to see? What?’
The sweet, sickly stench of death filled the air.
Mary backed away in horror as the river began to run red, the crimson wash littered with bloated corpses, dead eyes bulging in rotting flesh, mouths open as if in the last, futile gasps for air. With each minute that passed the bodies grew more numerous, choking the water and slowing the flow. And as the corpses began to wash up on the river banks, a startling transformation fell upon the surrounding woods. Suddenly the regal growth of years was reduced to severed stumps and trampled earth; the ancient forest decimated, exposed to the destruction of the elements. A land raped bare.
The howl of wolves pierced the eerie silence, and one by one they appeared among the dying trees. Stark as snow, silent and menacing, hoary snouts raised to quest the air, the beasts padded across the violated world, descending upon the river’s festering cargo with snarling fury. The white wolves feasted.
The Spinner’s Divine voice resounded within Mary’s mind.
‘The blossom must not be crushed.’
‘Goddess what am I to do? I am but a simple... I...I...I don’t understand...?’ Mary stammered. She turned her eyes from the wolves; a shudder passing down her spine, then looked up at the vision of the Goddess.
‘Seek the King.’
‘I am not worthy. I have killed ...’
‘Forgiveness lies with the one you have injured. Seek the King. The blossom must not be crushed.’
With a noise like a gale across a frozen wasteland, the swirling snow that surrounded the Goddess radiated out in a savage storm, enclosing Mary in an icy tempest of white-hot pain. A blanket of white fell; robbing her senses and muffling her screams. Then the storm withdrew, leaving her huddled on the snowy banks of the turbulent river.
Mary sat silently, the vision still strong in her mind, the smell of death lingered in the air around her.
It had to be a mistake. The Goddess had chosen the wrong messenger.
Even if she managed to gain an audience with the Stag King—unlikely for a low born whore—what would she tell him? The blossom must not be crushed. She didn’t even know what that meant. So, she would tell the King that she had seen the Goddess in the woods in the middle of the night, and that the Spinner had shown her a crushed flower, and that the Snowmelt clogged with stinking corpses? At best the Stag King would laugh. At worst...
No. The Goddess must choose someone better suited to the task. Someone braver and wiser. Someone who stood a chance of gaining an audience with the King.
Mary stood slowly and brushed the snow from her skirts. She rubbed feeling back into her frozen limbs and feet, her body tender and aching from the Spinner’s stormy departure. She must leave the woods. If she moved quickly she could still be long gone by morning, well before the body was found...
The body...How swiftly had her lover’s memory soured. Mary pushed the thought aside, and hurried back through her own footprints to retrieve her fallen coin. Then, trudging back through the woods, her boots sinking into the soft, new snow and her teeth chattering with the cold, she planned her escape.
If she kept her head low, she could cut back across the Common, along the King’s road, and out of the town and down the valley. With luck she could buy a blanket and food for the journey from a farm along the way, maybe even a ride. She’d never set foot outside High Vale. Mary had been born and here she had expected to die. There had never seemed to be any other option. But now, she thought as she prepared to leave all that she had known behind, at least she had her coin and her trade. She could start again in Port Duir.
As Mary tracked her way across the snowy ground between the wood and town proper, her head held low, the scarf’s layers hiding her face, a scurry of movement left startled butterflies in the pit of her stomach and hastened her flight, as with a flicker of moonlight in almond-shaped eyes, a prowling fox bounded off into the night. Rich, earthy scents of domestic animals in their pens heralded her arrival at the outskirts of the town proper. Entering the town, Mary strode down the icy track that wove between the thick beamed, low thatched dwellings with stone chimneys that emitted plumes of soft, grey smoke that hung low in the sky, like a fine woollen weaving.
She entered the more populous parts of High Vale, where people were still about their business at this hour, coaches and carriages passing through the streets. Some journeyed out of High Vale on their way to Port Duir. Incoming vehicles from the Thane’s Isles trundled towards the Tor, laden with Tithe for the Stag King, and merchant carts from distant shores brought goods for the markets of High Vale, in the hope of funding further speculative ventures abroad.
But now it seemed to Mary that the sounds and sights of life, once so familiar, were suddenly threatening. She walked as quickly as she dared; trying to avoid drawing attention from the people she passed, struggling to conceal her desperate haste to be gone. Faces loomed in and out of her vision, their smiles now sinister. The diffused, orange glow of an unshuttered window no longer signalled welcome and warmth, but instead the possibility of harsh, prying eyes and murderous condemnation; the sounds of gaiety now seemed made at her expense. A barked shout to move aside for the passage of a rickety cart and decrepit donkey sent her rushing into the shadows of a nearby alley, her heart beating too fast for comfort.
Mary forced herself on, pausing at the grassy verge on the edge of the Valley Road, and glancing to either side before scurrying across. Now the scene of both the Divine vision and Thomas’ murder were well behind her, and if Achaiva should strike her down for running, then surely the death would be no worse than swinging from the oaken gibbet on the Stag King’s Tor.
She ran across the darkened Common, a stitch in her side pinching her double, her breath a short, sharp wheeze of protest at her fast pace, until she tripped over a tethering stake and sprawled onto the snow. She stood up slowly and painfully, the chill pervading her bones, her feet heavy and without feeling as she forced herself to stagger on. Stopping a short distance from the King’s road, Mary adjusted her scarf and smoothed her sodden skirts.
But then, as she stepped onto the wide, dirt road, instead of turning towards the brightly lit merchants’ quarter and the way out of High Vale, Mary found herself looking north, her eyes on the track that wound up past the Thane’s halls and across the Snowmelt to the high, icy Tor.
With a frown of confusion, Mary turned and walked swiftly back down the King’s road, towards the noisy cacophony of taverns and inns that grew louder with each step. The flickering lights of torch and lantern shone down on the colourfully painted signs of the manufactures and tradesfolk of High Vale, the road rutted with the comings and goings of horses and carts, the wooden wheels splattering icy mud onto the sides of the bordering buildings.
A sickening surge of vertigo in which the world seemed to spin out of control and Mary struggled to get her bearings, her head swimming as she fought down the nausea.
She faced north, towards the burning campfires on the distant Tor.
Gritting her teeth she turned around again, her boots striking the muddy road with fierce determination. What stupid sense of heroism moved her that she would contemplate going before the King? But she hadn’t, had she? Mary had no intention of lingering in High Vale.
But it was alright now. The time of oddness had passed. The fletchers lay ahead, and the weavers...
The stone buildings slid away in a swirl of colour and form, leaving a dark, starry sky and the orange flames of the fires on the Tor.
Mary faced north.
No. She thrust herself around, her foot hitting the road at a run.
The world spun.
‘No.’ Mary closed her eyes and said the word vehemently. ‘Leave me be and seek another to do your biding, Virgin Goddess! I am not yours to command!’
But when she opened her eyes, the Tor still lay ahead.
‘So. You would have me sacrifice my life to take your message of blossoms and death to the Stag King!’ Mary snarled. ‘Why not kill me and be done with it Spinner?!’ she said, spitting the name, reckless in her anger and willing the Goddess to strike her down. ‘Choose another to do your bidding, for I will not!
Boot upon dirt.
The world turns.
The Tor beckons.
And all the while, time was passing and morning drawing nearer. With a heavy curse for all things Godly, Mary strode up the rutted road, her skirts clutched in one hand, her coin box in the other. And as she walked, she wondered just what she was going to say to the King, and how she would gain entry to the Long Hall, her anger and frustration building with each coerced step.
She moved to one side to avoid a group of warriors galloping up the road towards the Tor, the horses hooves pounding up clods of wet earth into the air behind them, then continued on past the brewery with its adjacent fields of malt, hops and barley, now dark and fallow, awaiting spring’s new seed.
The five stone halls of the King’s Thanes towered above her as Mary continued up the slope. The buildings paraded the emblems of the Thanes and the noble-bloodied families of each of the five Isles that were sworn to the Stag King’s allegiance. The boldly coloured banners fluttered fluidly against the dark, night sky.
Passing the last hall, Mary heard the rush of the Snowmelt where it cut through the valley, separating the town proper from the Tor and the Stag King’s Hall. Mary approached the tall wooden gatehouse that guarded the only bridge. White-crested water roared alongside red-stone cliffs below the wide, alder-wood span. No voice called out as Mary stepped upon the bridge, no figure emerged to halt her progress. Mary strode across the bridge, belligerent with the Goddess’s imposition upon her already unravelling life, and exasperated by the sheer futility of her intended task.
Across the bridge lay a snow covered plateau, overshadowed by the Tor’s craggy crest. Mary could make out the shapes of the barracks and armoury ahead of her, and to her right the grim gibbet. To her left reared the colossal form of the Stag King’s Long Hall, the ancient seat of the Mortals, the red-stone walls interspersed by the enormous bones of prehistoric beasts, their savage tusks crowning the roof-beams, and colossal horns the open apex, through which a pungent plume of billowing smoke now streamed.
The flames of a dozen campfires lay between her and the Long Hall. The fires cast a smoky radiance into the night that flickered across the Tor’s jagged slope and barren summit, sending elongated shadows to dance among the stone pinnacles and spires, creating the illusion that very rock moved with life.
The King’s men at arms lounged beside the fires with shadowed faces, passing drinking horns and pipes, the sound of their booming laughter competing with the roar of noise that flowed from Long Hall. And as she contemplated her impending fate, Mary’s gaze was drawn around to where the tall oak gibbet was silhouetted starkly against the snow covered background of the Tor’s spreading Green.
With a final curse for the wilful ways of capricious Gods, Mary strode towards the Long Hall, her heart in her mouth, her breath held in expectation of what was to come. But as she made to pass the first campfire, a bear-like man, his bulk swathed in a cloak of rough, black fur, raised a gleaming blade to block her path.
‘What you want?’ he grunted curtly, his estimation of her character reflected in his tone.
‘I need to see the King,’ Mary answered, her eyes lingering on the band of red tattoos that ran across the bear’s thick, broken nose.
‘Aiming a little above your station don’t you think?’ sneered a second voice.
Mary turned. The brawny man from the Red Warrior stood before her, the same hint of cruelty reflected in his eyes, the threat of violence a palpable force around him. ‘And what would a whore want with the Anghard King?’
‘Please, Sir,’ Mary said, her voice silky smooth. ‘I bring a message for the King. If you’d just let me pass...’
Turning towards the Bear, the Brawn raised an eyebrow. ‘The whore brings a message,’ he sneered, making a coarse, mocking gesture. He glanced back at Mary and grinned ‘Well, let’s hear it then.’
‘But...but...I can only deliver it to the King himself,’ she stammered.
‘Why should I let you pass?’
‘Please.’ Mary forced her voice to remain even, as inside she simmered with rage. Time was wasting, daylight drew nearer. ‘The message,’ she said. ‘It’s vital the King hear it.’
‘And what will you give to deliver this message?’ The Brawn asked. In the spirit of brutish comradeship, the Bear laughed crudely.
Mary’s eyes narrowed. ‘What do you want?’ she asked flatly, her voice devoid of emotion. In the end, it always came down to this. Nothing came for nothing, and in this life of haves and have-nots the interchange was always weighted in favour of those that had more; be it money, muscle or might.
‘Well now,’ said the Brawn, looking her up and down with a critical eye. ‘A few hours ago I might have purchased your dubious wares without a second’s thought. But now I find, by the light of the fire, and without the heat of liquor in my blood, that option doesn’t move me.’ And now it was his turn to laugh, a low, derisive chuckle. ‘It will cost you a silver.’
‘What?!’ Mary spluttered in reply.
‘Take it or leave it.’
Mary looked at the man who stood before her, barring her progress, belittling her, and for an instant she wished that the poker lay in her hand once more.
The back-breaking work of weeks, merely to gratify this swine of a man? A silver coin for something she wanted no part of? Seething with rage Mary turned her back and loosened the cloth wrapping from her precious iron strongbox. She undid the latch and peered inside, before retrieving a coin. She turned back to the waiting men at arms and held out the coin with reluctant fingers.
A flick of the wrist and the man pocketed the coin. ‘Surprise, surprise,’ the Brawn said. ‘Who would have thought it possible? And what’s to keep me from taking that coin box from you, whore?’
‘You’ve had your fun Carrock,’ grunted the Bear. ‘Leave the wench be.’
The Brawn stared at her, then shrugged, as if he too had tired of the game.
‘Come on,’ he said nonchalantly, then walked off, leading her past the campfires, towards the stout oaken doors of the Stag King’s Hall. He opened the doors and a rush of heat, heavy with the smell of sweat and ale, flooded into the night. Then the surly warrior strode away without a backward glance, leaving Mary on the threshold, the wash of noise from the crowded hall buffeting her ears.
Without giving herself time to hesitate, any potential fear overwhelmed by anger, Mary entered the Long Hall.
The deafening roar of noise continued unabated as she picked her way across the rush-strewn floor. Tangles of people were drinking, dicing and whoring, warmed by the intense heat of the Long Hall’s central fire, but no one moved to stop her. From high, shadowy alcoves in the Hall’s red-stone walls, the skulls of men and beasts stared down at Mary as she walked towards the dais and the great Oak Throne, carved with the symbols of the Sacred Mortal Kings. Of the Stag King there was no sign. Mary halted before the throne, searching the faces of those around her, until her frustration overcame her.
‘I have to see the King!’ she said as loudly as she dared, but her declaration drew little interest from the carousing warriors.
‘I have to see the King!’ she repeated, louder this time.
A few faces turned to look at her, then their attention swung to a russet hide that hung to one side of the dais. Mary looked around to see the hide lifting. She dropped into an awkward attempt at a curtsy, only to stagger backwards as a red-haired woman stepped out into the torchlight.
Mary made the sign against malifica, her face draining of colour and her hands trembling as she drew the symbol in the air before her. The Witch threw back her head and laughed, and Mary found herself believing all the tales that she had ever heard. Clothed in scraps of red leather, the substance stiff with blood and dirt, and long, red fur boots, the Witch’s square-jawed face was framed by a wild, tangle of blood red locks, her left cheek seared with the symbol of her taint, and her amber eyes far too bold for a creature said to be the Stag King’s slave. She aimed a swift kick in Mary’s direction, laughing loudly at her obvious distress.
‘Enough.’ The King said as he stepped out from behind the hide and strode to the throne. A final feral smile and the Witch stalked to his side.
Mary curtsied again. ‘Sire, I’ve a message for you,’ the words spilled out in a rush.
The Stag King sat back upon his throne like a tawny red lion, amusement clear on his strong boned face. ‘And who is your message from?’ he asked casually as he reached for his drinking horn, quaffing the ale in one go, the excess flowing over his closely cropped beard.
‘The Virgin Goddess Achaiva.’ Mary answered flatly. ‘I had a vision...’
Ale sprayed in all directions as the King boomed out his mirth, the sound of laughter spreading as his warriors joined in. Mary waited until the noise had died out before beginning again.
‘Sire, you must listen!’
‘I must do nothing’ the King returned. ‘And who are you to bring this message from the Goddess Achaiva and why did she not send her Bride to perform the task?’
‘Sire,’ a voice called from the rear of the Long Hall. ‘She’s a whore. She works at the Red Warrior.’ Mary didn’t need to look to verify who spoke.
‘The Virgin Goddess sends a whore to do her bidding?’ The King’s voice contained an edge of menace.
‘I didn’t ask to be part of this!’ Mary snapped angrily.
‘That is easily remedied,’ the King answered. ‘Remove her.’
At his command two warriors rose and walked towards her.
‘The flower must not be crushed!’ Mary yelled. ‘If you crush the flower the Snowmelt will fill with corpses!’
Laughter resounded around the room. But as Mary scanned the sea of disbelieving faces, she noticed that the Witch didn’t smile.
‘You make no sense,’ the King said. ‘Be gone whore. ‘
As she turned to leave with the sounds of scorn loud in her ears, Mary felt a tide of hot rage rise within her. Wasted time and wasted coin, and all for the amusement of thick-headed men.
Mary swung around. ‘Fool!’ she yelled, and was gratified to hear the Red Witch gasp. ‘Ignore the Goddess’s message at your peril.’
‘Take her.’ The King commanded.
And as callused hands closed around Mary’s slender arm she felt the molten anger overtake her…
Then blackness descended. And all thought ceased.
Mary’s body sagged to the ground, devoid now of all animation, any spark of life.
The King leant forward on his oaken throne. Talk rose up around the Hall as people turned back to their entertainment, their dice.
Then the still body convulsed. A violent wrench that lifted Mary’s form to its feet, her arms hanging limply by her side, her shoulders rounded and her pale head nodding.
Blind, white orbs, stared out of a mask-like face as Mary turned around and began to glide back towards the throne, her hair slipping and slithering in serpentine tendrils. Mortals scrambled to clear themselves of her path as an eerie silence fell over the Stag King’s Hall.
Five times Mary’s body jerked violently. Then her milky-white eyes fell upon the King.
‘You will listen to me, King of Stags.’
The words were like a whisper in the air.
‘Forget not that Earth-blood is earth-bound.’
Mary’s mouth opened and a high, keening sound emerged.
‘Hear Achaiva’s Prophecy Mortal man!
The blossom is crushed!
Will wavers! Valour dies!
Spring lies vanquished in a tomb of earth!
The yearlings fall to the black dog’s wrath as the Blood War begins anew!’
Mary raised a hand—the finger pointed at the King’s heart.
‘Sacrifice is called!’
The keening grew louder, hissing locks sliding across Mary’s face, obscuring it from view.
‘Across the dark water sails the child of sorrow! Bewitcher! Seducer and slayer!
Vengeance her birth right! Chaos her claim!’
The words became a scream. Raw and piercing. Mary’s body twitched and shuddered.
‘Then come the White to feast upon the survivors!
For the Believers are coming, Stag King!
And Belief strikes down all before it!’
Nausea rises up. Her head reels.
Mary blinked, struggling to focus, suddenly aware of a feeling of urgency that pounded for attention within her befuddled mind.
A passing, sickening sensation of being a stranger within her own head gradually gave way to a dawning realisation.
Shocked silence surrounded her.
The Stag King stood upon the dais, his hand clenched around the hilt of his long-sword, all humour drained from his ashen face. His warriors were rising to their feet, weapons drawn, hands raised in the ancient sign against malifica.
Turning on her heel, Mary fled down the Long Hall. She thrust open the doors, her terror rising as she heard the commotion brewing behind her.
The King’s guards laughed loudly from their positions around the campfires as the stricken whore hurtled past, but as Mary’s foot hit the alder-wood bridge, she heard the Witch’s shout and the sound of swift pursuit.
Mary ran. Her booted feet skidded on the ice and snow. Her heart thudding in her chest.
Her breath a laboured gasp for air...
The Red Witch
….Night fell as they entered the long valley of High Vale, the roar of the Snowmelt announcing Mary’s return to the town of her birth.
Fatalism lent Mary a measure of calmness as they rode past the tannery and into the merchant’s quarter. Here, in this town, her life had begun, and here it would end. Although during the last three months, she had merely swapped one labour of the body for another, Mary had experienced a sense of contentment that she had never known before. She had not missed the grasping hands, and the repetitious motions devoid of the softness of intimacy. Running had been worth it, if only to experience an alternative to all that had gone before.
A layer of wood-smoke misted the stars, testament to the chillness of the mid-spring night, and a swift wind battled the riders as they travelled through the town towards the Tor and the Stag King’s Long Hall. The Witch’s mare nickered loudly, as if eager to be home. The horses galloped past the Thanes’ Halls then clattered across the alder wood bridge and onto the Tor, where the party halted. As the Bear dismounted he spoke curt words to his warriors, directing them to their campfires, and as the sound of their talk faded into the night, he lead the way down the side of the Long Hall, his warhorse suddenly placid beside the Witch’s mare. Stopping before a wooden door carved with the antlered form of the Horned God Cernos, the Bear lifted Mary from the saddle and placed her gently on the ground.
As he raised a meaty hand to knock, the door opened and warmth spilt out into the night.
The Red Witch stepped into the light. Disregarding Mary altogether, she strode to the chestnut mare, clasping the horse in a fierce embrace. As the Witch inspected her mare for signs of neglect or injury, the Bear swung up into his saddle and rode away.
The Witch hollered, her branded face twisting, her red hair awry. ‘Anna!’ A dark haired girl came running from the door. The Witch watched as the girl led the mare away, then turned to regard Mary with derision. ‘Haven’t you led us a merry chase, “Prophetess”.’
‘Why am I here?’ Mary retorted, stepping back. Something wasn’t right. As much as she feared her fate, surely the gibbet was swifter and far less cruel than death at the hands of a full-blood Witch.
The Witch raised an eyebrow. ‘The Stag King commands your presence,’ she said shortly, as if it explained everything.
Mary glanced behind her before stepping through the door, wondering briefly if she stood a chance if she ran now, but knowing that the action would be futile. The Witch closed the door behind her. They stood in a small space, an antechamber, dimly lit and low of ceiling. The Witch pushed past Mary and thrust aside a leather hide that served as both wall and door, nodding for Mary to precede her.
Then Mary stood inside the King’s private chamber, a vast room strewn with hides and furs, the red-stone walls hung with layers of rich tapestries, their intricate patterns and images splattered with rust coloured stains; Anghard spoils from the time of the Uprising.
‘Eat,’ the Witch said, pointing to a nearby table, the finely crafted furniture in stark contrast to the rough wood platter and the vast haunch of charred meat that sat upon its scarred surface.
‘What? Why do you want me to eat?’ Mary asked, glancing at the food, her suspicions clear in the cast of her face.
But the Witch responded with a laugh. ‘Do you think it poisoned? If I wanted you dead, Mortal, you would not be breathing now.’ She shook her head disdainfully. ‘Sit down. Eat. Drink. I am not so weak as to slay another whilst they are eating their final repast,’ she said with a loud and scornful laugh.
Mary’s stomach reminded her of her hunger, and a lifetime of far too little animated her movement, so she sat on the chair and lifted the meat to her mouth. She ate in silence, alert for the wrenching of her gut and the onset of sweating that was said to accompany poisoning by the most fatal of herbs. When nothing happened she eyed the room and the Witch over the remains of her meal. Of the King there was still no sign.
‘You have no idea what is happening, do you?’ the Witch said in echo to Mary’s inner thoughts.
Mary didn’t respond. She continued to eat, her eyes darting around the room, waiting for what ever came next.
‘Do you remember anything of the prophecy?’ asked the Witch sidling closer. ‘Anything at all?’
‘What do you mean?’ Mary asked, placing the bone back on the platter and sliding the vessel away from her. She wiped her mouth with her sleeve and stood up, her stance readily for flight. ‘What do you want from me?’
‘Me want from you? What could you possibly give me that I cannot take for myself?’ the Witch snarled. She looked at Mary through narrowed eyes, then sniffed the air as if trying to catch Mary’s scent. ‘You don’t smell like a Witch. But perhaps another uses you for their own purpose,’ she said with a hiss. ‘How do I know that it wasn’t you that moved the King’s hand?’
‘I don’t understand what you mean,’ Mary said. ‘I told him all I knew...’
‘So you say,’ the Witch snapped. ‘Prepare yourself. You will be summoned.’ She stalked out, lifting a flap in the opposite hide wall, leaving Mary alone.
Mary didn’t hesitate; she stood up quickly and ran to the hide that led to the outer door. Lifting the thick skin she recoiled in surprise. No sign remained of the antechamber that had lain between the King’s inner chamber and the outer door. The seamless touch of smooth red-stone met her fingertips.
The opposite hide lifted and a wizened woman, bent double by time, shuffled across the room, holding out a bundled robe. Mary made no move to take it.
‘Put it on,’ the Red Witch said as she re-entered the room.
‘Why?’ Mary asked suspiciously. ‘What difference does it make what I wear when you kill me?’
The Witch prowled the perimeters of the room, her eyes on Mary and her expression calculating. ‘I can smell your fear, Prophetess. What secrets are you guarding?’
Looking away quickly, Mary made the sign against malifica. She shut her mind to the thoughts that suddenly clamoured in her head and all the secrets she held inside. Could the Witch pick the threads of her mind at will, unravelling each for her own satisfaction and amusement?
‘Put on the robe,’ the Witch said, ripping the bundle from the old woman’s grasp and thrusting it in Mary’s direction. ‘You.’ She swung around to point a long slender finger at the ancient woman. ‘Go back inside.’
As the wizened woman hurried away, the Witch turned to Mary once more. ‘You are to be tested. The King needs to prove that you are what you claim to be: a Prophetess of the Triple Goddess, in her guise as the Virgin Achaiva.’
Mary expression remained blank.
The Witch shoved the wadded robe against Mary’s chest. ‘You will be tested, Prophetess. There must be physical confirmation that you are intact.’
‘I never claimed to be a...’ Mary stammered in reply.
‘If you are a Prophetess for Achaiva the Virgin-- it stands to reason that if you really are who you purport to be, you will be intact. If you are not, then your malifica against the King will be proven, and according to the King’s Law you will be thrown into the Witch’s Hold, there to rot.’
‘But I never claimed...’
‘Put on the robe,’ the Red Witch snapped. ‘You will be tested.’
With shaking hands Mary undressed, and placing boots and clothes on the floor, looked up to see the Witch watching her.
‘You were a slave?’ the Witch asked, pointing to the long, white scars that ran the length of Mary’s back.
‘No.’ Mary answered curtly.
‘You bear the marks of the whip...’ the Witch probed.
‘My life is not of your concern, Witch,’ Mary snapped.
The Witch laughed scornfully at the sudden outburst. Then, after waiting for Mary to pull the long robe over her head, she raised the hide to the Long Hall. ‘Go.’
Mary scowled as she followed the Witch’s command. Everything was happening too quickly. They didn’t know of her crime, at least not yet. That much was clear. But now as Achaiva’s Prophetess—a title that they, themselves, had bestowed upon her—they expected her to be untouched. And when they found the vital aspect gone, ripped away eighteen years before in a brutal instant of casual gratification by uncaring procurers of virginal flesh, they would damn her for the that loss.
One dark fate traded for another.
With the hem of her robe sweeping the floor, the sleeves covering hands and fingers, the hood a heavy shroud that concealed all but her lower face, Mary passed beneath the hide and into the Stag King’s Long Hall.
Mary walked the rush-strewn floor to stand before the King, seated upon his throne. Then she heard the Witch behind her. ‘On your knees, Mortal!’
Mary genuflected before the King, her eyes down.
A deep silence filled the near-empty Hall, a strange tenseness and sense of foreboding. Mary glanced up. The Stag King looked grim, his previous levity of spirit conspicuously absent in the set of his face and the curve of his mouth. ‘Rise, self-proclaimed Prophetess of Achaiva,’ he said solemnly.
Mary shook her head quickly. ‘Your Majesty, I did not...’
‘Quiet!’ the Witch snapped. Seizing Mary’s arm, she led her to the middle of the Long Hall to where the ancient matriarch waited with four women.
Then the Witch stepped back, and the women stepped to surround Mary. A snap of sound and a billow of fabric and the four women unfurled a swathe of white cloth, a chest-high screen held taut between them, the wizened woman inside with Mary. The ancient woman turned to Mary, her face impassive.
And so as the hem of her robe was lifted, Mary fought the urge to scream at the injustice and absurdity of what she must now endure, all to satisfy a claim she had never made and an expectation she had played no willing part in.
Then the old woman ceased her callous touch, and the hem dropped down once more. The woman shuffled forward. The screen came down, swiftly folded. The old woman curtsied low before the King.
‘My Liege, she is intact.’
The Stag King’s voice held no hint of mockery.
At Mary’s expression of incomprehension the Witch scoffed. ‘The Whore has no idea of the nature of the Spinners gift. Or of the prophecy itself. She does not deserve the title…’
‘Be still, Ceredwyn. I am still King in my own Hall. We will treat Achaiva’s Prophetess with respect.’
‘Then why did she run? It makes no sense,’ the Witch snapped in reply.
The King gestured for the women to depart, their swift obsequiousness leaving the Long Hall empty of their presence.
Mary remained silent, struggling to keep her expression neutral until she understood what was really happening. Her glance darted to the Long Hall’s stout, oaken doors in a subconscious display of nervous expectation.
‘They say it was my hand that crushed her,’ the Stag King spoke in slow and measured tones. ‘Yet no memory of that assault remains within my mind. Speak, Prophetess. Tell me how I might make amends. What is Achaiva’s will? Speak, and it shall be done.’
Mary’s dismay showed plainly on her face as her glance darted to the doors once more.
‘See!’ the Red Witch shouted, her scar pale against her flaming face, her amber eyes burning. ‘She has no knowledge of the Prophecy, or of the Goddess’s will! We waste our time! What good...’
‘Enough,’ the King commanded.
The Witch’s words ceased but her irritation remained clear, a smouldering heat barely contained. She prowled a path around Mary, her amber eyes narrowed, her stance ready for attack.
The King leant forward upon his throne. ‘What is the Goddess’s will, Prophetess?’
Silence no longer offered sanctuary. ‘I don’t understand. Sire, I told you all I knew. I have heard no more from the Goddess. I don’t know what you want from me,’ Mary said quietly. ‘Please, I never claimed to be more than I am.’
‘She’s hiding something,’ the Witch said. ‘I can smell her fear.’
The Stag King bowed his head, the movement throwing his face into shadows. ‘Can it be possible for all to come undone, in a single moment?’
‘Nothing is set in stone,’ the Witch responded and Mary was surprised to hear such softness in her voice. ‘Our lives are in our own hands, Ferness, not the Gods. The Prophecy shall be averted.’
‘The Isle of Tinne has fallen to the Believers. War comes to the Meda Isles,’ the King said in a leaden tone. ‘Seven days have passed since the Maiden’s death, three sons I have lost within that time. Each death preceded by the sighting of the black dog. Will the destruction of my house and Isles serve as retribution for a life that I cannot remember taking?’
‘The beast is a Familiar,’ the Witch answered with a swift shake of her head. ‘A dumb brute ridden by a sorcerer. Malifica lies behind your son’s deaths, Ferness. You have done right by sending for your remaining sons. Here Ki and Dairn will be safe. Here, I will protect them.’
The King looked up again, his brown eyes heavy. ‘You will remain as my guest, Prophetess, treated with the respect your position accords, awaiting my pleasure,’ he said. ‘Should the Goddess contact you again, I would have you near.’ Then the King looked to the Witch. ‘The Prophetess will stay with you, Ceredwyn. See that she has all she needs.’
‘What!’ the Witch spluttered. ‘I cannot have her...’ Then as another, longer look passed between King and Witch, she fell silent and with a quick thrust of her head in Mary’s direction and a sour grimace of dislike, she gestured for the Mortal woman to follow.
‘Sire, let me leave. I am of no use to you,’ Mary said. ‘There has been a mistake I am no Prophetess. I worked at the Red Warrior, I... I’m not…’
‘Your past is known to me. You will remain as my guest, Prophetess’ the King said again, his tone allowing no dissent.
Mary genuflected low before the Stag King, her mind running ahead, calculating just how much they knew and what that meant. She followed the angry Witch back through the hide and into the inner chamber, relived to be alive, yet bewildered to find herself caught up in the concerns of a King and his country.
Why had no one mentioned Thomas’ murder? They knew who she was. Surely then they knew of the body that had lain on her floor, the discarded poker by its side?
The Witch led Mary through the King’s chamber and lifted the hide to reveal the dimly lit antechamber. Pushing Mary towards a dark series of descending steps that led down into the red-stone, the Witch sneered. ‘Get going “Prophetess”. You heard the King!’
Mary looked at the darkened steps then at the Witch. She stood her ground, defiant in her fear. ‘I’m not going down there, Witch. I’m not going down into that hole to rot.’
‘You’ll do what the King commands!’ the Witch said, aggressive once more, her scarred face twisted in the dim light. ‘Think your self lucky to be sharing my quarters, rather than the Hold.’
Mary reluctantly made her way down the steps. The Witch followed, blocking the light from the room above and casting the steps into shadow. Unbalance by the lack of light, Mary stumbled as her foot hit the ground.
‘Stay still!’ The Witch snapped as she reached to push Mary aside.
A long tongue of white-hot fire roared into existence, leaping down the tunnel from the Witches hand, igniting a series of torches held in high wall sconces and licking the red-stone with smoky, black soot. As Mary stood amazed and frightened, the Witch strode ahead, glancing back with haughty contempt.
The rough-hewn stone tunnel ran straight, ending in another series of steps that led up to a thick wooden door, studded with metal and bolted with a thick rod of iron. Using both hands the Witch slid the bolt back. The door swung open.
Faint orange light; a warm, honeyed glow, the smell of smoke, burnt meat, and of the Witch herself. Mary walked into the room and the Witch closed the door behind them.
A vast chamber lay before her, the red-stone walls and ceiling smooth, a magical creation built into the rock face that lay behind the Tor. A miraculous room, filled with the wondrous spoils of the Witch race, a wealth garnered by the Mortal King and his Thanes during the Uprising. A chaotic mess of finery, much of it damaged. Stacks of canvas paintings rested against tapestry cloaked walls, and on finely-crafted tables. An entire corner of the chamber was devoted to a mountainous manifestation of books and parchments, covered by a thick layer of snow-like dust, the pinnacles connected by fine, lacy cobwebs.
Enormous mirrors hung, stood and rested around the room, each one worth a small fortune, each and every surface splintered and cracked. Crates of luxurious cloth stood by tall, golden statues and fine, silver chairs. Strange and sinister objects lay abandoned amongst clusters of glowing orbs that swirled with blazing fire.
As Mary gaped in wonder the Red Witch laughed. ‘It was built for my mother,’ she said, no hint of emotion behind the statement. ‘Fey magic made this cage within stone. The lives of twenty sorcerers paid for this, so that Anghard the Red might have his pet Witch.’
The Witch threw herself onto a faded velvet couch, causing the clawed, rosewood feet to scrape across the floor. ‘Make yourself at home, “Prophetess”.’
A sudden creak of a door and Mary glanced across the chamber. The Witch’s girl-servant emerged from behind a colourful wooden screen, the painted scene pierced by a series of small daggers. The girl walked to the massive, blackened hearth set into the chamber’s wall and began to arrange kindling for the fire. A spark from a tinderbox and a flame swept into being, swiftly devouring the wood and surging up in eager anticipation of more.
Thudding both booted feet upon a table, the carved surface caked with dried mud, the Witch yelled over her shoulder. ‘Anna! A drink!’ She looked at Mary. ‘Want one?’
‘No.’ Mary answered quickly. ‘Where do I sleep?’
The Witch shrugged.
Mary looked around for a place to retreat amongst the furniture and debris. She needed time to think, to sort out all she had heard, and to work out just what to do next. The testing, the continued references to the title of Prophetess and to the Prophecy itself, made no sense. Why were they keeping her here? Thomas’ death had been overlooked, but for how long? While she remained here, bound to the King’s royal whim, would the past catch up with her once more?
‘How does it feel, Whore, to be virgin once more?’ the Red Witch taunted. ‘Oh, my mistake, “Prophetess of Achaiva”,’ her tone belittled the title. ‘But I’m not fooled,’ she said. ‘You’re hiding a dark secret, aren’t you “Prophetess”? A secret that keeps you running...’
Dread returned, heavy as a stone, a dead weight inside. There was no need for Thomas’ spirit to haunt her; the memory of that night was torture enough. Mary struggled to keep her face impassive as the Witch continued to probe.
‘Who helped you dye you hair “Prophetess”?’ the Witch’s voice was soft and menacing. ‘The practice is common among my people, but not, I think, amongst yours,’ she paused to smile in secret understanding. ‘Who’s been helping you? Could it be, the “Prophetess” has been associating with the tainted? And just what could that mean I wonder?’
An instant reaction, a sudden, brief flinch as Mary remembered the Goodwife and her dark secret. A flinch Mary couldn’t suppress.
The Witch nodded as if the gesture had answered her question. Seizing the proffered drinking horn from her girl-servant, she slurped the ale loudly. Then in one, violent motion the Witch flung the drinking horn across the room, the vessel colliding with a tall candelabrum. The wrought-iron structure fell with a muffled clatter onto the floor, and as the burning candles licked the disintegrating rug, it ignited in a puff of foul-smelling smoke.
‘So easily did you proclaim my lover’s death!’ the Red Witched snarled.
Mary backed away from the flames, her own anger beginning to rise, and heartily fed up with the interchange.
‘The drugs were potent. The Maiden willing.’ Flat words from the Witch, a hardening of the chin and a tightening of the lips, her anger and discomfort tangible. ‘One death. One only. A single mistake, the blame lying with more than one person. Now the Priestesses demand his blood.’
Then the anger that seethed inside the Witch faded, and for a second a different person sat there, a woman clearly struggling to come to terms with the subject of which she now spoke. And as Mary began to understand just what the Witch was saying, she was surprised to feel a faint stirring of sympathy for the woman’s plight.
Then the girl-servant threw a pot of water on the flaming rug, extinguishing the burning mass with a hiss and a further plume of smoke, and the Witch looked up. ‘And you are an empty promise, “Prophetess”,’ she sneered. ‘An empty promise.’
The stirring of sympathy vanished. Mary found herself snapping in reply. ‘I never claimed to be anything, Witch! Why won’t you listen to me! I never asked for the vision! I never asked for any of this! You say that I am the King’s guest? Then why imprison me?’
‘This?’ the Witch interrupted. ‘A prison?’
‘You said it yourself.’ Mary said. ‘A cage of stone. Built for your mother.’
‘But not my cage, “Prophetess”. Not mine,’ the Witch asserted, her amber eyes flaring again. ‘Nothing physical binds me to this place. I come and go as I please...’
‘You’re a slave!’ Mary said, shocked by the Witch’s audacity and heartily fed up with the interchange.
But the Red Witch merely scoffed. ‘Love keeps me by the King’s side, Whore,’ she said. ‘Something you wouldn’t understand.’
Hands clenching into fists, rage rising up like a wave inside her, Mary struggled to maintain control. ‘You call me a whore?! You who use sorcery to keep the King in your bed!’
‘Never!’ the Witch snarled. Her booted feet thudding to the floor, as she leant forward on the couch, tensed for the attack.
‘And who are you to judge me?’ Mary yelled. ‘You know nothing of me!’
‘I know everything, “Prophetess”!’ the Witch taunted again. ‘You’re the bastard child of a cheap, pox-ridden whore. Born in a gutter while your mother’s legs were still spread from the rutting of her last customer....’
‘You know nothing!’ Mary snarled. The anger felt white hot and lethal, begging to erupt, fuelled by a force-fed diet of humiliation and pain. Mary searched for something to throw, her hand grasping a glowing orb that sat on a nearby table. ‘You. Know. Nothing!’ The words came screaming from her throat, loud, shrill and shocking. ‘You want to go digging in the dirt, Witch?’ she screamed. ‘Do you really think that anything you could dredge up from my past has the power to hurt me any more?’
As the glass orb hurtled towards the Witch, she seemed taken back by Mary’s violence. Then the ball struck the side of her head and she yelped in pain and shot to her feet. Startled by the noise, the serving girl looked up from the hearth, her wooden spoon dripping fat onto the floor.
‘Don’t use me to vent your spleen, Witch! I’m nobody’s whipping boy!’ Mary continued to shout as the Witch placed a hand to her head, her fingers returning wet with blood. ‘I’ve had a gut full of that role! Got it? I brought the message! What the King did with it was his affair! His hand crushed her! He said it himself! But still you seek to cast the blame on me?’
Mary gritted her teeth, battling to stem the flow of words that spewed forth of their own accord.
‘You say the Goddess has claimed me?’ she yelled, horrified to hear her own voice trembling with emotion. ‘What good does that do me? If not for my sex I would have been free to pursue my own path, instead of being sold into service for a jug of sour wine and suckling pig.’
Mary’s face clenched into a mask. Teeth bared, jaw jutted, she shook with the force of her tirade, the outpouring negating any response from Witch or servant. ‘And as my mother spitted that pig as easily as the men spitted me, do you think I had reason to rejoice for Achaiva’s sweet gift, her purity, her innocence?’ The shout echoed through the red-stone chamber.
Then the anger fled as swiftly as it had come, leaving Mary horribly empty.
‘I care nothing for Kings or prophecies,’ she said. ‘There are no heroes waiting to save us, Witch. This world is the realm of monsters, not of Gods.’