Down through the well-worn mountain paths, Saoirse picked through patches of wild autumn flowers scouring for herbs and seeds and whatever else she could find in the heavy mist. Ardal wandered close by and searched under fallen logs and rocky outcroppings for game to chase. The sun was a faint glimmer in the sky, barely visible through the haze that covered everything. But rather than turn back to the cottage, Saoirse kept on towards the loch.
She watched the sky carefully to study the way the shroud of mist dangled from the air in an unnatural way. The longer they walked through the woods, the more she was convinced a spell of weaving had been cast. But, there were only a few that could perform such magic.
“Last I knew, Ardal, they were all dead.” She murmured to her hound as she carefully pushed over leaf-litter in search of mushrooms. Without the daylight streaming through the sparse foliage, it was hard to see the dark fungi blooms she needed to gather.
Witches… Saoirse’s heart ached at the thought. It felt like another life, another world ago when she had lived among her own kind. King Tormaigh’s war against the Witches Clave had been violent and the losses heavy on both sides. But, her kind had lost the most. Those who managed to escape the clutches of the Hunters would have been lucky to have lived as long as Saoirse had. But she had her own means of survival. Only a few knew what, or who, she really was and they were bound to secrecy.
“Can you imagine that two-hundred was once young for my kind?” Saoirse asked Ardal as they made their way down to the hidden pathway to the loch. He flopped his head to one side and gave a hearty bark that echoed down through the tree line to the water’s edge.
“Aye, that’s true. I still look young. A boon in the old days, but now it is too much like a curse. Normal humans wonder why you look the same while they grow old and grey.”
Ardal didn’t respond this time, as they were too close to the water. Instead, his tongue rolled out of his mouth, as it always did when he was happy, and he bounded down the embankment and splashed into the cool waters. The fog was heavy here too, but it swirled away from the surface of the water. It was as if the mists were a snake coiling down the mountain peak into the valley rather than a blanket that covered everything.
“Be careful, you silly hound.” Saoirse laughed to herself as she watched him paddle around near the shore and dive down into the water.
Without Ardal, Saoirse feared her life would have been too mundane to stand. Using magic had been something she had sworn off, at least the dark-arts she had grown up learning to use. Hunters could find her if she did, but that wasn’t the real reason she had given it up. Even still, there was little to amuse her without her loyal pet.
She smiled, despite the foul weather and despite the creeping feeling of danger that tried to wiggle into her mind. She set up her line and tossed it into the water, sitting down on the shore to wait for her catch. Ardal appeared back on the surface, his head just barely above the water as he tread by her hook.
“You’re scaring all the fish! Go on with you and make yourself useful.” Saoirse frowned but then laughed as Ardal dove down under the water in search of a catch. He always had been better at fishing than her.
But just as quickly as she felt a quiet peace in her heart, it was shattered. She felt a presence, a magical presence, moving across the lake towards her. Ardal popped his head out of the water with a catch in his mouth just as Saoirse saw an apparition begin to take form over the dark water. It was moving quickly towards the shore.
It was a witch and a powerful one.
Ardal ducked back down as a plume of fire and air sailed overhead. Saoirse let her line go and scrambled backwards away from the shore toward the tree line. As the mass reached the beach, it hovered over the pebbles and driftwood. It was a swirling vortex of fire and wind and inside Saoirse could see a dark mass writhing in the flames. A bright flash burst from inside the vortex and then a witch, clothed in blue silk, stepped out of her traveling portal with a smile on her face.
Liam had nearly turned around and went back to his love-nest three times that morning. He had never felt so unsure of anything.
“Perhaps she has nothing to do with this weather. I should just let it go.” He mumbled to himself as he rode down the village road headed west to the King’s Highway. But anytime he thought he had convinced himself to turn back, he would find himself staring at the wall of heavy mist and his resolve would return. He couldn’t even see his holdings anymore; everything was hidden behind a wall of grey.
It was only an hour’s ride before he reached the stone-paved highway that led to King Tormaigh’s keep. Once on the main road, he didn’t look back towards the mountain. All the doubts he had about his decision to leave Brigid behind faded with the anticipation of what he must tell the king. Yet part of him was glad to be returning to the White Keep, as it had been his home for many years.
Liam had grown up in Tormaigh’s castle. As the son of the King’s youngest brother, Liam had been given special treatment by his uncle. The king, who had no sons of his own, had gathered the boys of his brothers and cousins, bringing them up as his own and raising them in the arts of war and court life. While most royal families plotted against one another for power, his Uncle Tormaigh had instilled in Liam and his cousins the importance of family. He taught them to place blood above all other desires- whether it be power or love. It had been a good life and Liam had never been in want. He was tutored in language and arts and politics and taught the way of the sword and bow. When he turned 18 he was given command of a special military unit, just as his other cousins were. They all worked hard to earn their uncle’s love and approval.
Liam was especially grateful to his uncle the King for arranging his marriage to Brigid. She was the daughter of a high-borne noble who lived further west in the neighboring kingdom of Ainmire. They had been allies during the war with the Witches Clave and so the match was well received. His cousins had tried not to be jealous, but Brigid was the loveliest woman they had ever seen. Once Liam and Brigid’s betrothal had been announced, his Uncle Tormaigh bequeathed him the title Lord and promised him the lands to the east near the Shadow Mountains and Darkwood Forest. That was where he would live with his beautiful bride after the war ended.
Liam thought about his time serving in the war and his thoughts were brought full circle. He and his men were responsible for hunting and destroying witch spies that were hiding in the Shadow Mountains and lands to the east. Causalities had been high in Tormaigh’s war against the Witches Clave, but Liam had lost the most men and it ate him up inside.
“I failed them.” Liam spoke the words that were laying heavy on his heart.
People die in war, the King told him. But he knew that it was a single foolish choice that had lead to the disasters they faced in the Shadow Mountains. Those who had survived had been maimed beyond recognition. Only Liam had escaped with his life. Liam and…
“I should have never let her live.”
“Let who live?”
Lost in his thoughts, Liam was startled by the voice. He snapped to attention and pulled back on the reins to slow his horse to a stop. He was not far from the White Keep and he could see the banner with the falcon crest fluttering in the wind. Turning in his saddle, Liam watched as a ruddy-haired youth wearing the colors of the Campbell clan brought his black mare to a halt a handbreadth away from him.
“You shouldn’t sneak up on a warrior, I could have cleaved your head from your shoulders.” Liam scowled at the youth. The boy smiled in reply.
“I suppose that it might be so, but I have been following you for some distance. I was sure you knew I was there.”
Liam felt irritated by the childish grin staring back at him “Who are you boy?”
“I am Killian, son of Brendan, brother to the King of Ainmire. I have been sent to King Tormaigh to learn how to hunt witches.”
Killian watched Liam with curious eyes as if waiting for him to reveal his own identity.
“So you say.” Liam sat back in the saddle and pulled a flask from his pack taking a gulp of water.
“Are you headed to the castle, sir?”
Liam placed the leather pouch back into his travel bag and looked towards the white stone fortress ahead in the distance. “That is none of your business. Best you ride on into whatever trouble you were headed into.”
“Not trouble, I was spying out the road. The king has given me the job.” He looked at Liam for a sign of approval, but none was to come. Instead, Liam flicked his horse’s reins, commanding his horse forward and leaving the young Killian to catch up.
Brigid straightened the pillows of goose feather for the fifth time before she sat at the edge of the bed. She wrapped her hands around the post and stared at the door as if her wishes could bring her husband back home. But she was feeling restless and soon found herself fiddling with a basket of weaving.
“I wish I wasn’t so stupid. Only a stupid wife would mention things her husband has told her not to.” She ran a hand through her mess of blond curls as she paused to look out the window. The wall of grey had not dissipated with the morning sun. And even though she could tell that sun had risen, she could not tell what time of day it was for there was little light that could break through the heavy mist.
“What am I to do while I wait here. Surely he did not expect me to clean and cook without assistance while he is out doing God only knows what.”
She had wished now that she had listened to her mother’s advice and brought along a hand-maiden or two. They could have lived in the small shed adjacent to the house while the new manner was being built, since the cottage was too small for the presence of servants. It was their honeymoon and tradition held that they should be alone for that time. It had been almost a month that they had lived in the cottage alone. Until now, it hadn’t mattered to Brigid. Liam had seen to the cooking and the villagers had been kind enough to send young girls to clean and do mending. But they hadn’t really had much time to consider what they would do after their honeymoon period had ended.
A knock at the door brought her out of her complaining. She jumped in fright, pulling both her hands to her mouth to stifle a scream. The spindle of thread smacked against the floor and the sound reverberated across the small cottage. When the knock came again she approached the door cautiously.
“Who is it?”
It took a moment before a voice replied. “My Lady Brigid, it is Laisrén, the smith.”
Brigid thought over the warnings Liam had given her. He had said nothing of staying shut up in their cottage alone. In truth, he had told her he would send someone to check on her. The thought of another face was a comforting thought. Perhaps the smith could take her to his home so she could wait for Liam’s return with his wife. She couldn’t remember the woman’s name but she did have beautiful copper colored hair and a smile that made you feel warm inside. Brigid had told herself she would eventually learn the names of all the men and women under their care. As Lord and Lady of the Darkwood Village, she felt it her duty to be a model of love and care and virtue.
She swung the door wide open, a smile beaming across her face until Laisrén lifted his head. His eyes were dark, black as midnight, and across his neck was a gash oozing blood.
“Very good, my Lady.” He laughed before knocking her unconscious.