Saoirse woke to the smell of wet dog as Ardal nudged his cold nose in the crux of her neck and then licked her face.
“Get off, get off…” Saoirse muttered as she pushed the fluffy bulk of Ardal away. He whimpered and stumbled and she sighed at the sound. Her head was pounding from where she had slammed into the rocks.
She blinked several times, her eyes heavy with sleep and anxiety. The mists still hung near the mountain peak, snaking down its jagged spires into the valley below. Yet, the sky was still visible by the lake and Saoirse could see that night was near. Already there was a cluster of first stars visible in the dusky sky.
“This is bad,” she hummed to herself as she tried to stand to her feet. As Ardal ambled towards her to offer her help, she noticed half of his body had been singed, the crackling skin charred black and oozing blood. Dropping to her knees, she wept into her faithful pet’s neck. He replied with several licks to her face.
Her basket of herbs had been scattered and she hadn’t thought to bring along any salves or brews. She wasn’t sure if Ardal would make it back up the craggy path to their cottage, not with the blisters and bloody mess that covered half-his body. She cursed herself for being so unprepared.
“I suppose the hunters will have felt the magic tremors.” She said as she smudged a tear through the dirt on her face. “It won’t matter if I use my powers or not.”
Ardal whimpered and stiffened, unable to bend his legs to lie back down. The effort it had taken for him to rise and waken Saoirse drained him of the little energy he had left and his breathing became ragged.
“I won’t let you go, not yet.” She murmured to her faithful pet.
Kneeling into the grass near the shore, Saoirse closed her eyes and focused on a distant humming nose. Deep within herself she could hear the pulse of her magic, the thrumming of her power which had gone dormant from years of disuse. It was awake now, beating like an extra heartbeat deep within her souls. She called to it and focused on its energy as she began to chant, weaving a spell of healing.
“Thra’cas, elia’cas, no mastra heilio’cas.” The familiar words buzzed on her lips and vibrated down her body to her fingers as she placed her hands over Ardal’s wounds. She kept her eyes closed for fear that she would lose her grip on the flow of magic that was itching to explode from her body. She thought of her promises and loves that had bound her to the mountain in an attempt to keep her magical will from taking over her mind completely. She had forgotten how exhilarating it was to use her powers.
As she continued to chant, a glowing white light oozed from her pores, covering the wounds and regenerating the flesh. Time seemed to disappear into the echoing chant and Saoirse’s head began to spin the longer she used her magic. Every sinew and muscle, each layer of skin and tuft of hair took immense concentration to heal and regrow and though it only took several moments, it felt like a lifetime.
Exhausted, Saoirse and Ardal both laid back onto the cool grass as darkness swept over the lake and edges of the mountain forest.
“We cannot linger here, Ardal.” Saoirse whispered.
Ardal lifted his head and lowered it just as quickly. He hesitated to stand as Saoirse rose unsteadily to her feet. Her head was spinning still but she could feel a quickening in her pulse. Something was tugging at the flow of power coursing through the earth beneath her feet and she knew that the hunters had finally tracked the episodes of magic.
“If we don’t make it home in time, I fear that we may have no choice but to fight.” She told Ardal as they shuffled up the path back to the cottage.
“There is no one here,” Liam reported. His hand was gripping the hilt of his sword as he approached his Uncle to bring him the news.
“So the witch has fled. No doubt she was responsible for this disturbance than. Her absence only proves her guilt.” The King’s words were clipped and he pursed his lips together as he spoke.
Liam shook his head. “I don’t know, uncle…”
“You came to me with this problem. It’s a little too late to doubt your suspicions now.” King Tormaigh sighed.
He turned to Killian who sat nearby, leaning up against a tree. “Killian, go fetch me the captains. I want their report, they should have something for me by this time.”
The boy jumped to his feet and clutched a hand over his heart. “Yes, sire.”
Liam watched as Killian weaved his way in and out of the mass of horses and make-shift tents spread throughout the heathered glen. They had picked a spot just to the south of Saoirse’s cottage to make camp. It had the advantage of obscurity, blocked from the witch’s view by several thick copses of oaks. But it was near to several points of escape, if the need arose.
Liam felt the palms of his hands began to sweat as he thought of Saoirse. He hadn’t seen her in months, not since just before his wedding. He hadn’t told her of the marriage, but there was part of him that wondered if she already knew about Brigid but had said nothing. The thought made his stomach turn in knots.
When he had spied out the cottage, everything appeared as it had the last time he had been there— several small gardens growing herbs and food, lines full of drying herbs, a clean and orderly barn with well-fed and loved animals resting comfortably. The only things missing were Saoirse and her beloved pet, Ardal.
Nothing made sense. There were no indications that she had performed some magic, not that the hunters could sense. They knew there were protective barriers around the cottage, ones that kept out those wishing to do Saoirse harm. Only Liam had been able to walk through them to check Saoirse’s home.
Yet, the trackers hadn’t found a point of origin for the mists. According to them, Saoirse must have traveled away from home to cast her magic. They had spent the last few hours trying to track her down. There were powerful barriers trying to hide whoever had created the mists.
He wrung his hands, pacing the rather large open-flapped tent.
“Liam, stop pacing,” Tormaigh ordered.
“I’m… Uncle, I’m sorry. I just can’t help think I made the wrong choice. The trackers said that they could find…”
“Do you think because she was smart enough not to perform this spell here that it means she didn’t do it?”
“How do we know that other witches didn’t survive the war?”
“Plenty of witches survived the war, but few are brazen enough to venture down from the north into our lands.”
Liam rung his hands and shook his head. “How do we know that it was Saoirse?”
“You accused her, Liam. Are you saying now that you think she isn’t capable? A witch that you loved and fornicated with. A witch that you said claimed to love you beyond her own life, who would have certainly heard of your marriage to Brigid. Are you telling me that you doubt that this former lover had anything to do with all of this?” The king gestured to the mists, which still clung to the air like a choking wall of ivy.
“I know how it looks, uncle.”
The king snorted and shook his head. “Liam, I have never known you to be so confused.”
“I was afraid and embarrassed … I have had regrets.”
“As you should have…” The king turned away from him to pour over a stack of weathered maps and documents.
Liam said nothing further, burrowing into himself instead and mulling over his thoughts alone. He loved his uncle but the man clearly did not understand love the way Liam did. Real love didn’t know boundaries and he had loved Saoirse, deeply. He had married Brigid, and loved her as well, but it was a different love. What he had with Saoirse… there were no words.
Saoirse had thrown away her family and her life for him and he had been a coward. Here he stood near her home, the place where they had pledged themselves to one another, with an army ready to destroy her. Regret at his hasty judgments burned right through his heart.
The approaching tromping of the captains shattered his pensive mood.
“My Lord, we have news.”
Cormac, Liam’s eldest cousin and captain of the Trackers, placed a magical map down on the table in front of the king and pointed to the northern most lake just north of Saoirse’s cottage.
“There is a trail that leads down from the mountain and echoed here at the lake. There were several veins of magic left behind.”
“More than one witch then.”
“At least three, you Majesty,” Cormac replied grimly.
“And the third vein?” Liam asked wearily.
“Its line started here in the mountain as well but is scattered across the village and then disappeared just to the west. We believe that this witch or group of witches, hard to tell with this dispersed pattern, are here.” Cormac pointed to Liam’s home in Darkwood Village.
“Can you tell if they are still there? Has there been any word from the village?” Liam worried for Brigid momentarily, but his thoughts were torn between Saoirse and his new bride.
The king shook his head. “And what is to the west? I thought that land was unsettled.”
“The ruins of Darkwood lie to the west, majesty. The rulers of this area, centuries before we settled here, lived in those forests. There are great ruins of broken castles and many foul things make their home in that part of the wood.” Liam answered.
“So these witches are divided. Can you tell how many were at the lake or give us a sense of their power?”
“Fafnir believes that these two veins,” Cormac pointed to the thick red and blue lines shimmering on the map. “They represent two very powerful witches. Only, this one lingers, and this one trailed south into the valley.”
“It makes no sense. The lake has nothing there.” Liam stepped towards the map but was blocked by the king. “Why would they split up like this?”
No one replied to Liam’s questions and the silence fell heavily around them like the suffocating mists.
“I want three parties formed up. Cormac, take the 1st and the 7th Hunters units with you to the west. Fafnir and his men along with my two units will head north and check the lake and mountains further north. Liam, you will take the 8th Hunters and the remaining trackers with you down into the village.”
“Maybe Bressel should take the men to the village and I can stay behind with a handful of men near the cottage, in case she returns home.”
The king looked at Liam with raised eyebrows before a deep furrow set in. Cormac excused himself along with the other captains. They hurried off through the trampled glen of fading heather to round up their men. Dusk was falling across the mountain and Liam looked to the first stars, hoping that they would give him answers.
“Fine, Liam. You may stay here. Keep Killian with you so he stays out of trouble. I don’t need his father calling for my head because of this.”
“Thank you, Uncle.”
The king left the tent behind, his attendants readying his horse and helping him to mount. As the units prepared to leave, the king turned to Liam, a dark look falling over his aging features.
“Don’t be fooled again, Liam. I expect that if she returns here you will do what you must.”
Liam nodded his head and bowed with clenched fists. “I will, uncle.”
Iesult leaned in and pulled the strand of hair from Brigid’s face, gently sweeping it behind her ear. Brigid shivered at the touch.
“I have told you all I know, will you release me?”
Brigid sat at the table, a scattering of half-eaten food was spread across its dusty surface. The other witch picked through the fruit with disinterest, rolling a dark grape in between her fingers.
An undead servant bumped into the table as she placed another bottle of wine in front of Brigid.
“What do you think, Duana, has she told us enough?” Iesult asked with a pouty expression. She leaned over the back of Brigid’s chair, grabbing her under the chin to lift the frightened lady’s head.
“She has said plenty,” Duana hissed as she pulverized the grape between her fingers.
Iesult smiled and released Brigid’s face. Tears were streaming down her cheeks and her body shook in fright. She knew that there was little chance that they would let her leave alive.
“I don’t know why…” Duana said. Her voice was raised and her hands were clenched into fists. She slammed them on the table making Brigid jump in her chair.
“Duana, please. Your sister made her choice. She is powerful… but not more than both of us. We will kill the humans, exact your revenge, and then we will find the whelpling and end her. She is a traitor.”
Duana closed her good eye and leaned back into her chair.”I don’t know.”
“We cannot have her on their side to give them an advantage, especially if we wish to invade.”
Brigid wrapped her arms around her body and silently prayed for deliverance. She had realized after telling the witches about the woman in the mountains that the witch of Gnáthóg was not the enemy. Saoirse, as Duana called her, was a traitor witch and for that, she felt immensely relieved. Yet part of her was angry with Liam for having lied to her about the woman while the other part of her was angry with herself for putting the witch, who had been nothing more than a friend to her people, in danger as well.
As the witches brooded over what to do, Brigid anguished over her fate. They barely looked at her nor paid attention to her after she had finished her tale. Now all that was left for her to do was sit and wait for them to decide how they would make her suffer.
“And what if this Liam returns with troops?” Duana asked.
Iesult stopped her pacing and faced her marred friend. “Then we will attack and kill the hunters.”
Duana sneered at the other witch. “I have spent most of my power turning these vile humans. Do you have enough magic to stop the king’s forces?”
“You are assuming they will know where to find us.”
Brigid swallowed hard.
“I was careful to not use my power beyond the village, but there are always echoes. They have become very adept at chasing even the faintest trails.”
“Then we will use her as bait and set a trap for them. There are other dark things in these woods we can rally to our cause- werewolves and furbolgs, even dark fairies.”
Duana grabbed the bottle of wine, drinking straight from the bottle. “I don’t care who we use. I want them all to suffer.”
Iesult smiled and walked back around the table to Brigid.
“Let’s start with her, shall we.”