It was dark by the time the King had left the woods near Saoirse’s home, headed down the mountain to the valley below where Liam’s home and people were waiting for his return. The men who stayed behind with Liam were settled around a small fire just to the south of the witch’s abode. Feeling unsettled, Liam had offered to take first watch, roving the wood near the cottage to lie in wait in case Saoirse returned.
Approaching the invisible line that separated Saoirse’s acre of land from the rest of the woods, Liam paced back and forth, careful not to step over the line. He peered beyond the barrier to the house, hoping to catch a glimpse of light or other signs of life, but there were only dark shadows playing across the front of her home.
“I should have gone with the king to check on Brigid,” he muttered underneath his breath as he took a step off the main path towards the nearest tree. There was a soft bed of trampled heather and tall grass upon which he sat, placing his back against the massive oak. He was angled just right so that he could see up into the night sky. The thousands of stars that filled the dark expanse pulsed with life and it wasn’t long before he found himself daydreaming of days long past when he and Saoirse would spend their nights staring into the same celestial nightscape.
“Sometimes I wish I had never met you…”
“I say the same sometimes,” a soft voice whispered beside him.
Liam turned with a start coming face to face with Saoirse.
He reached out to grab her, but she backed up across the line, melding into the safety of her enchanted part of the wood.
“Why did you do it?!” Liam jumped to his feet, standing nose to nose with his former lover. He could reach out and touch her if he wanted, but he pulled his hand behind his back, forcefully clasping them together.
Saoirse wrinkled her nose. “I didn’t cast the spell, Liam. You should know that.”
He narrowed his eyes. “How would I know that? You haven’t talked to me since . . .”
“Since you were married? ‘Tis true. I thought it best to leave you and your new bride be. You moved on since the war, I can’t begrudge you that.” She stood motionless near the wall of protection, unwavering.
“Then,” he began.
“Witches from the North. We battled near the lake.”
Liam’s throat suddenly felt dry, his head swarming with horrifying thoughts. “Brigid . . .” His voice trailed off.
“Is she not with you? I saw a fire nearby.”
Liam suddenly felt guilty for his thoughts, blaming Saoirse who had never shown a malicious bone towards any but her own kind. “The king’s men.”
She shook her head. “I see.” She cast her eyes downward and took a step back further from the line.
“I..I thought that you might have grown jealous of Brigid and sent the fog to punish me for spurning your love.”
Saoirse lips went taut, her face grim. “Why would I do such a thing? Did I not give you my sincerest well-wishes the night you told me you were to be married?”
Liam’s voice caught in his throat.
“Brigid might be in danger, Liam. You shouldn’t have come here.”
“My uncle went to check on the village.”
“And the men headed to north to the lake, were they looking for me?”
“You . . . and the other witches.”
“So the trackers were able to sense them. How many?”
Liam closed his eyes, trying to remember the trails on the enchanted map. “They only sense three strong lines, but…”
“But there could be more if the witches took the right precautions.” Saoirse finished his thought and they nodded at one another, both quietly acknowledging the dangers that lay ahead.
Without another word, she turned to head back down the path, a dark figure lay near the door to her cottage and it lifted its head as she turned to leave Liam alone with is thoughts.
Worry coursed through Liam’s veins and he felt compelled to follow his former lover. He was just about to cross the threshold when a voice wafted towards him.
“Sir Campbell,” the voice belonged to Killian, his bride’s kin.
Liam turned just as the youth pushed his way through a patch of prickly bushes. Hoping to block the view of Saoirse, Liam stepped in front of the path trying to draw Killian’s attention with a wave of his hand. A wide-eyed expression of sheer panic told him he was too slow.
“Liam, there she is!” Killian pointed towards the cottage.
Liam took a step towards the boy and grabbed him by the arm placing his hand over his mouth. “Shh, quiet.”
Killian realized what Liam was up to and struggled to pull away. “Stop squirming. It isn’t what you think.”
They tussled on the road as Killian tried to break free from Liam’s grasp. Without realizing the direction they were going they both fell across the magic barrier. In an instant, the ground began to quake beneath their prostrate bodies.
“Liam . . .” Killian asked in fright as dark blue strands of energy shot up from the ground, ensnaring the fair-haired youth.
Not affected himself, Liam jumped up and away from the growing blue strands of magic.
Saoirse ran towards them with a limping Ardal on her heels. “What have you done?”
“I was trying to keep him from noticing you since you were just galavanting around like nothing’s happened.” He spoke with a raised voice and Saoirse gave him a sharp glare. “The boy is . . . he is my wife’s kin. Can you stop it?” He pleaded, the tone of his voice changed to one of worry.
The boy was covered from head to toe in the heavy, vine-like threads of magic and he tried to scream for help but no sound would come from his throat.
Saoirse’s eyes closed slowly and she pinched the bridge of her nose before turning to head back towards her cottage. “It is meant to protect me from danger. And if he meant ill towards me, he will be transformed and there is nothing I can do to stop it.”
Liam could only watch in horror as the boy’s body was completely covered in a blanket of blue light, wrapped around him in banded sections and pulling itself into his skin. The noise had drawn the handful of soldiers from the camp and they burst through the thicket just as the transformation spell took effect.
Locking eyes with the captain, Liam shook his head but the men were too enraged to be corralled. They drew their swords and, in their haste, crossed the threshold. Their feet were frozen in place the instant they charged across the barrier, the magic shaking the ground as it did its job.
Before the guards, swathed in the blue threads of magic, what was left of Killian shook itself free. His youthful form had been bent and twisted and molded into the shaggy form of a mountain hound. Killian the dog shook his long, mangled mess of brown and blonde fur before trotting off towards Saoirse, who was watching with an impassive expression near her herb drying shack. Liam followed creature that had once been Killian, crestfallen.
“The king will have my head for this.” He cried as he fell into the dirt at Saoirse’s feet.
“We have more pressing matters to worry about, Liam. The witches from the North are out for blood. They could have your wife, and the king himself. If we survive this, which I doubt we will, the king will have little time to worry about what happened to a handful of his men.”
Liam couldn’t think of a response. Kilian’s dog form nestled his cold nose under Liam’s chin and licked his face.
“What are we to do, Saoirse?”
She stooped down, scratching Killian behind the ear. “First, we are going to find your wife. Then, we hunt.”
“Sire, these homes are the same as the last.”
The king scratched his temple in frustration as his captain gave his report. After two hours of searching every barn and home and farm on Liam’s lands they had nothing but grim news. Blood splatter and a few mangled body parts, but not a soul to be seen or heard from.
“They couldn’t have all just disappeared.” The captain offered hopefully.
The king knew differently.
“Send a rider to the cottage for Liam and his men and another ride up to the lake. Whatever happened here, we will need more men.”
“Sire, you have the best of the witch hunter units with you.”
“DAMMIT, captain. Do as I say!”
The king kicked his horse, forcing him into a gallop. The last residence he needed to see what Liam’s. He hoped that Brigid had somehow been spared, for his own sake if not for his nephews. But as his entourage stopped just outside the cottage, Tormaigh’s stomach dropped. The door was hanging on its hinge and there was blood splatter across the front door. It was black under the light of torch as the king cautiously approached the opening to the house.
“Dammit, DAMMIT.” He cursed in the night. “Damn witches, I knew we shouldn’t have stopped when we hit the northern front. We should have crushed them, destroyed them all. A vile lot, all of them.” He kicked the door sending it banging against the inside wall. It echoed across the small interior chamber and for a moment the king could have sworn he heard small whimpers.
“Sire,” his guards called as they dismounted.
“I heard it too.” Tormaigh pulled his sword from its scabbard, a bright red glow pulsing from the witch-blade. He entered the home with his men on his heels.
“Brigid, is that you? It’s me, Tormaigh. It’s okay, you can come out.”
There was a scuffling sound as if a large rat was scurrying across the floor, dragging its legs behind him.
A gust of air blew behind them, rattling the door and sending it banging against the wall. The guards turned in fright, their blades out in front of them.
The king and his men stopped mid-room listening to the sound of scratching and scuttling.
“I don’t think it’s Brigid, my lord.” His guard offered in hushed tones.
The door slammed shut and what followed was the guttural howl of a furbolg. The king whirled, blade in hand to face a giant of a creature, its sharp pointed teeth dripping with blood as its mouth opened to howl. His guards pressed in front of him, pushing him backwards just as the creature swung it massive paw at the king. The blow crushed one guards head, smashing the metal helmet into the man’s skull with a sickening crunch of flesh and bone.
“Run, sire, run!” his other guards called to him as they jabbed their glowing red swords towards the furious monster.
The King climbed over a broken table towards the back window, smashing his sword into the glass. He carelessly dove head first out the opening into the grass behind the home. The echoes of his men screaming in pain followed him and then silence. Scrambling to his feet, he ran towards the front of the house only to come face first with a legion of furbolgs. They had formed a semi-circle around the cottage , their spears pointed at the king as he ran towards the mangled remains of his mount.
“Very good, King Aeron.” A lady’s voice carried on the wind towards the king. A mangled witch, her face half-burned, stepped out from among the ranks of the shaggy mountain monsters. There was a glowing orange globe of magic light in her hand and she wore a wicked half-smile.
“Duana . . .” The king took a step backwards.
“I see you haven’t forgotten me after all, my liege.” The witch replied venomously.
“How could I forget the witch who killed my wife and child?”
Duana smiled with only half the skin on her face able to curl up into a grin. The scarred half of her face remained impassive. “I didn’t come here for you, Tormaigh, but I won’t curse the gods for their blessings. After all the years I have waited for revenge, it seems bittersweet.”
“What have you done with my niece?”
“Oh, the beautiful little thing that lived here? Why, didn’t you see her inside? I told her to go home.”
The king’s eye grew wide, his hand shaking as he turned to look through the broken glass. He could hear the crunch of bone as the creature that had once been the lovely Brigid devoured his men.
“I see… you were expecting a woman. Well, I personally think she looks better that way, don’t you?” Her laughter echoed across the empty wood. The shouting of men in the distance made the furbolgs agitated and they shifted uncomfortably in their armor.
“Well, now, we can’t have your men running off to tell the others what’s happened, then we might have the might of your armies come down and make a mess of things.” Duana motioned to the king of the furbolgs. “King Aeron, if you please. Hunt them down and kill them all. Every last one. Then return here and burn the village to the ground. King Tormaigh and I are going to have a little chat.”
Two rotted corpses stepped out from behind Duana as the furbolg army sprinted off towards the charging army of hunters. The king turned on his heels and ran back around the house towards the woods.
“Don’t let him get away!” Duana yelled to her undead minions.