Brigid woke with a start. Her body tensed immediately as her eyes flew open. She attempted to move her arms but the solid feeling of chains attached to her wrists sent her body into shivers of panic. The room was dark and she lay on cold, wet stone. Pulling against the chains, she screamed for help but the only reply was her own voice answering in a soft broken echo.
Her head ached from where Laisrén had knocked her unconscious and she tried to feel the lump on the back of her head. It was wet, whether from blood or the wet stone she could not tell.
“What happened to him…” she mumbled to herself as she sat up and pushed her back against the cold stone wall. “What in the heavens could have happened?”
A voice spoke out of the darkness. “He got what he deserved. Just as you will.”
“Who’s there? Who are you? I demand… I demand you show yourself!” Brigid’s hands shook as she spoke and she tried to keep the chains from rattling.
She could see nothing in the faint light, for there was only a small blue glow given off by lime worms, their small bodies wiggling across the wall of stone.
A ball of dark red light appeared from a corner of the room and behind it a face horridly scarred. One good eye focused on Brigid. She gasped at the sight and flattened her back into the wall.
“Aren’t as brave now, are we lovely?” The woman took the red light and whispered over it until it began to glow white hot. She turned away from Brigid and placed the ball in a wooden bowl sitting on a rickety table in the middle of the room. As she spoke another string of indiscernible words to the orb, it pulsed and grew brighter and brighter until the dark cave-like room was lit entirely.
Brigid squinted her for several moments until her eyes grew accustomed to the light. She noticed that they were in what appeared to be some underground chamber of a long-abandoned castle. Crumbling stone support pillars and rotted floor beams covered in moss and lichen went on for as far as she could see. It was a massive underground hall that would have entertained hundreds, one’s that the kings of old would have used. There were cobweb covered lanterns that lay broken and scattered across the floor along with the moldy remains of unburied dead. Skittering rats chittered away from one end of the hall to the other.
The woman with the scared face watched Brigid closely, only smiling at her when the captive woman noticed the undead bodies of her villagers standing against various posts throughout the room. They appeared to be statues, their vacant eyes looking nowhere in particular. Yet, they would randomly move, a finger twitch here, the jerk of a leg muscle here. In the mass of undead were Laisrén and his wife, both in the same sorry state with slits across their mottled throats.
“What have you done to them? My people?”
The witched turned and smiled. “They are my servants now, milady.” The witch emphasized the title with a laugh before she pulled out a rickety chair and sat facing Brigid.
“My husband will come for me.” She straightened her chin and pushed it up in the air in defiance.
“I certainly hope so. That is what we are counting on.”
Brigid suddenly felt foolish. “You… are you the witch of Gnáthóg?”
Eyes bright with wonder, the woman gave Brigid a wild stare of disapproval. “Say that again.”
Brigid clamped her lips shut and shook her head.
“Where did you hear that name…Where?” The witch stood to her feet and shuffled over to Brigid so quickly that all the Lady of Darkwood Village could do was turn her head away from the deformed witch and squeeze her eyes shut.
The witch grabbed her by the shoulders and lifted her against the wall. “I said tell me where you heard that name?!” The voice was like the screeching of a horde of vultures and the room begun to shake as she screamed.
“It is the name…” Brigid began. “The name of the witch that lives in the mountains.”
“LIES!” The witch yelled as she dropped Brigid. The heavy chains around her ankles and wrists pulled her quickly to the ground and she slammed hard against the floor, the wind knocked from her lungs.
Brigid’s head was spinning as the witch began to interrogate her anew. “She is dead. They told me she was dead. Killed in the battle with the 7th Hunters Brigade in these very woods. Are you telling me that she lives?”
“I do not…” Brigid began. She paused to take a breath and she clutched her side in pain. “I do not know of any battle. I only know what my…my husband told me.”
“And he told you the witch of Gnáthóg lived?”
“He told me that she saved his life.”
“LIES!” The witch flew forward and slapped Brigid across the face. “My sister would never help a human.” The angry witch bared her teeth, filed sharp to points like a vicious wolf.
“Please…” Brigid moaned as she cowered under the witch’s feet, a trail of blood dripped from the her mouth. “I only tell you what I know.”
She paused for a moment and looked down at Brigid, her body shaking with fear, her pale, yellow curls matted with blood and dirt.
The witch smiled cruelly as she picked the girl up from the floor.
“I’m sorry lovely. My temper got the best of me.” She flicked her fingers and the latches to the chains clicked, the metal cuffs falling open. Brigid eyed the witch cautiously as she led her to a chair.
“A drink? I am sure you are thirsty in this dry and dusty castle.” A flick of the finger and a muttered word and a cup full of red wine appeared before Brigid. Then the witch clapped her hands and the undead servants of Darkwood came to, moving about the room to carry out some unspoken command. Platters of strange food were set before a visibly shaken Brigid and a warm shawl placed over her shoulders.
“Now… please. Tell me again about the witch of Gnáthóg, my lovely.” The witch commanded. Before Brigid could think to offer up a fight, the witch spun her finger in a circle and shook her head. “Be careful, everything you say from this point on will decide your fate.”
Killian had followed Liam all the way to the gates of the White Keep, where they were greeted with happy shouts of welcome. King Tormaigh rushed from the stables where he had been inspecting a new shipment of horses as they dismounted near the stable entrance.
“Liam!” The King laughed as he pulled his favorite nephew into a tight embrace.
Liam tried to keep his face impassive but the thought of what he must tell his uncle burned hot in his mind, his face a reflection of his inner turmoil.
“You look ill, is all well? How is Brigid?” The king asked through a weary smile.
“I… that is why I rode here uncle. There is something urgent I must speak to you about.”
The king ran his hand through his silver-streaked hair and narrowed his eyes. “As you wish.” He turned back to the groomsman who had been waiting in the stable door. “Take care of the mares for me and see to these horses. Come, Liam, let’s go see what all the trouble is about.”
Liam followed at the King’s heel, his head bent low and his ears ringing with worry. His thoughts swirled around his mind, threatening to buzz out of his skull like a nest of angry hornets. He didn’t realize they had made it to the council chambers until Killian shook him by the arm.
“Sir Liam,” the boy repeated himself louder than before.
“I’m sorry… I was thinking about other things.” He looked at the boy and then frowned before turning into the room.
He sat down in a hard wooden chair and stared into the fireplace as the doors were shut and the king took a seat next to him. To his surprise, Killian sat down as well.
“I was hoping to speak to you in private, uncle.”
Tormaigh looked to Killian and then back at Liam. “He is in training for his father and the King of Ainmire. He should stay and learn. There is nothing we will say here that he will speak of. It is the first lesson he learned in my court.”
Liam looked grimly at his uncle and then at Killian. “So be it. I have come seeking help.”
“Is all well in Darkwood? Is something wrong with Brigid?”
“There has been… an incident. And it has brought to my attention an error in judgment that I wish to have forgiveness and redemption for.”
“And what error is that, Liam?” The king’s hands clamped down on Liam’s. Tormaigh tugged on them and forced Liam to look into his eyes.
“Long before the war started I loved another.”
Killian coughed into his hands and scooted his chair forward. Liam tried his hardest not to lash out at the boy.
“Go on,” the king said softly.
“She was a maiden in the east who lived in the woods. And this was before the war began and before my betrothal to Brigid, you must understand. I had no idea that things would turn out the way they did.”
The king released his grip on Liam and sat back into his chair. His eyes narrowed and he raised a hand to rub his brow. “Tell me what happened, Liam. And leave out no details.”
“I had made a promise to marry this girl before the war with the Witches Clave. When the battle lines were drawn and I knew there would be war, I hid her away in the mountain somewhere safe. Then you proposed the marriage to Brigid and I was smitten and… foolish.”
“So this woman has come calling? Looking for restitution, damages? She has no claim on you. This is an easy fix.”
“I wish it were so, uncle. But I am afraid it is much more sinister than that.”
“You got her pregnant?”
“No…” Liam stood to his feet suddenly and the heavy chair scratched against the stone floor. Tormaigh ordered Killian to fetch refreshments and Liam listened as the door opened and closed. He pinched the bridge of his nose and muttered to himself to be strong.
“Tell me what it is, Liam. Has this woman caused you or Brigid harm?”
“She is a witch.” Liam blurted out as he turned on his heels to face his uncle. “I didn’t know she was a witch when I fell in love because she was unlike any of the other witches we had fought in the years leading up to the war.”
“And she is still alive? You did not kill her when you found out?!”
“I couldn’t. I thought…” Liam paused and swallowed the lump forming in his throat at the thought of Saoirse. “I just couldn’t kill her, uncle. I loved her.”
“Go on.” Tormaigh’s words were constricted and cold.
“I went to find her in the woods before our assault on the Shadow Mountain hoping to talk her into fleeing the area. But she wasn’t alone. There were dozens of witches, a battalion of fighters on her doorstep. They tried to kill us, and they nearly succeeded in killing all of my men, but she… she turned, uncle, against her kind. She killed them for me and saved as many of my men as she could.”
Tormaigh’s expression was unreadable. His lips were not pursed tightly and his brow remained uncreased. He remained silent even after Killian returned with a tray of wine and bread.
“Killian, I want you to gather the captains and tell them to meet me in the council room immediately.”
“Is everything alright, sire?”
“Do as you are told, lad. No questions.” Tormaigh pointed to the door, his voice calm and steady.
Once Killian had left, Tormaigh stood to his feet and clasped Liam by the shoulder. “What has the witch done?”
“She has set a deep mist over the valley. It is unnaturally thick and I am unsure of why it is there. I can only imagine that she has threatening plans for me, for my home.”
“Why would she, after she saved your life?”
Liam looked at him mournfully. “I never stopped being her lover until…”
“Until you wed Brigid. And you think that she is acting out of jealousy?”
Liam shook his head. “It is what I would do.”
The king tilted his head and asked. “And you left your wife there, alone?”
Liam said nothing but nodded with his eyes closed. “I am sure she will be fine. I sent several armed men to guard the cottage and notified the steward of my absence. She is not alone.”
Tormaigh wanted to reprimand Liam but he didn’t have the heart. “You did the witch a kindness and she returned the favor. It would seem that she has turned against you, however. At least we know where she lives and may end this before disaster strikes.”
“You are not mad at me? You do not wish to strip me of title and land…”
The king looked wearily at Liam before he replied. “First we will deal with the witch. All other matters will be dealt with after that.”
Saoirse ducked behind a fallen log and watched the witch as she materialized. The smile found her, even behind the rotted wood.
“Don’t be shy, young one. I will not bite. Come to me.” The voice was honeyed with a spell but it had no effect on Saoirse who stayed firmly planted behind the log.
“Clever one…” The witch laughed and threw from her hand a bolt of fire.
Saoirse dodged the attack and rolled to her feet brandishing a pair of shiny daggers. The hilts were wrapped in leather and the metal was covered in runic words carved into the design.
“Leave these lands and I will not kill you.” Saoirse said her voice fearsome and unwavering.
“Kill me? Who are you that you think it would be so easy to kill me?”
“This mountain is under my protection. Your magic is unwelcome here.”
The witch turned quickly, her silken robes fluttering out around her like a whirlwind of sky. “Who are you, little one?”
“I am Saoirse, the witch of Gnáthóg, and I demand, according to the code of witches, that you leave my land.”
A strange blue glow began to emanate from her daggers as she took two steps forward nearer to the witch.
“I am not sure you want to challenge me, youngling. I am Iesult, the Sovereign of the Northern Clave, the High Witch of the Northern Lands.”
Saoirse kept her feet dug into the rocky ground as Ardal trampled out of the water and ran to her side. He gave the northern witch a deep growl, barring his teeth angrily.
“Your pet smells like wet human. Tell me… is it in your habit to turn those you watch into your servants? That isn’t very benevolent of you my dear, Saoirse.”
“What I do or have done is none of your concern.”
“Oh, but it is… you see… we were told that all the witches in these parts had been killed. Hacked to pieces and burned to ash. Yet…” The witch paused as she waved her hand out in front of her. “Here you are, and healthy as a newling fresh from her cradle.”
“Is this your doing?”
“What, my dear?”
Saoirse pointed to the curls of mist pouring down the tips of the highest mountain peak.
“The mists? Oh, yes.. .mine and my… associates.”
“I command you to dissipate the mists and leave this area before there is trouble.”
Iesult laughed, her voice echoed and rolled down the valley sending birds to flight. “I am afraid I can’t do that. We have come on a mission, you see.”
Saoirse clutched the daggers tightly in her hands and prepared herself for the worst. All around her body she could feel the energy being pulled towards Iesult. “What mission is that?”
“To take this land back for the clave and destroy the enemies of all free witches.”
And with her last words Iesult send forth a wave of blue fire that burned hotter than the Hunter’s sacred flames. The power of the blast tossed Saoirse from her feet and knocked her unconscious, though otherwise unharmed. Ardal had been thrown as well, far across the shore into the forest, his fur badly singed.
Iesult stood over Saoirse’s unconscious body and frowned before turning to head down the path to the valley.
Part Four will be released April 29th!