“Careful!” Saoirse motioned to a patch of half-submerged land that no longer looked safe to stand on. Curls of waterlogged heather poked through the top of the water, waving their delicate blossoms like a siren’s song. Liam stiffened and wiped the corner of his brow, throwing his former betrothed a glare of relief and frustration. Small air bubbles had begun to pool on the surface of the water around the patch Saoirse had used to jump to outer bank leading into the forest. Even in the gloom of night they could tell it would be certain death to use the same path.
The dogs at Liam’s heels panted and whined as Liam paced the small stretch of mossy ground. After two hours of traipsing through the dark with only a magic orb to light their way, they were all exhausted. The thick fog that had enclosed the village south of the bog lands had come to settle over their path. It laid over the stretch of marsh like a heavy blanket, which had made it near impossible for the group to make headway quickly. They were near to the edge of the bogs, just to the north of Darkwood forest, but the last pieces of land were quickly sinking beneath Liam’s feet along with his patience.
“There is nowhere to go!” He yelled.
“Stop throwing a fit! You will have to jump from there to there.” Saoirse pointed to another half-visible square of moss further from the sopping patch Liam currently stood on. The patch of land looked unappealing with the roots of a half-dead tree weaved through the mossy land like a jagged water serpent. Liam scrunched his nose up at the prospect of landing near the dagger-like appendages.
“I can’t make that and if I do, I will more than likely spear myself.”
Saoirse shook her head and pointed the orb of light his direction. “You can’t stay where you are either. Jump or die, Liam. There is no going back.”
She pulled a dagger from her waistband and cut the rope that had served as a lifeline through their trek in the bogs. Liam tensed as the line went slack.
“What did you do that for?!”
“We don’t need it. Once you jump to the other patch of land, you can make it to the bank and grab my end of the rope. I will pull you up. It would get caught in those branches anyways.” She motioned to the jagged roots. “Now, hurry up!”
The dogs whimpered, growing restless as the ground took on more water.
“Come, hounds.” Saoirse clicked her tongue to call the handful of hounds that had yet to make the jump. They didn’t give Liam a chance to respond before they leaped, one after the other, onto the muddy bank.
Killian, the first of the hounds that had jumped behind Saoirse, barked at Liam, who still paced back and forth, his eyes shifting nervously. The last of the larger dogs made the leap easily; their tails wagging as they landed on the sloped bank. Saoirse tossed her line of rope down to each of the hounds, encouraging the dogs to grab it as she helped them up to higher ground. Liam had grown still by the time she finished, his eyes watching the fog as if he had heard or seen something.
“What is it?” Saoirse called to him.
“I thought . . .” his voice trailed off into a whisper.
“Liam, we are hardpressed for time. We must go if we are to find Brigid. Think of your wife.”
Before Liam could respond, there was a loud crash behind them and the ground shuttered beneath their feet. All around them the land moaned and quaked and the water rippled and sloshed violently.
At the sound, Liam turned and leaped. He hadn’t prepared himself for the distance and Saoirse yelled out to him as she watched his foot slip from the edge of the wet ground, sending him crashing into the patch of moss. Half of his body was in the murky waters, the other half clinging to the slippery muck covered roots.
Saoirse gasped and dropped to her knees. “Careful!”
Killian growled and the other dogs followed suit as the ground shuddered again, but more viciously than the time before. The shaking was followed by the deep bellow of a creature that sounded otherworldly.
“Pull yourself up,” Saoirse commanded as she directed him to the nearest root.
Liam’s hands were slick, yet he managed to wrench himself from the viscous waters. Sliding onto the patch of soaking moss, he scrambled up onto a thick root covered in black, tarry muck. His shoulder ached and he saw a trail of blood streaked mud covering the outside of his tunic. He felt for his sword and sighed in relief that it was still there.
“Where to now,” he said breathlessly. The ground shuddered once more and they gave one another a knowing look. “That sounds like a fight.”
“We can’t fight here.”
“Will we have a choice?”
She nodded to the path behind her that led into the forest.
“We could hide.” Liam suggested.
“Whatever that is, I don’t think it will be so easy to hide from. It is magical, which means that it could find us.”
“How do you know it is magical?”
A soft-blue orb of light in her hand cast an eerie glow across her face. “Because I can feel its magic.”
“So, if we can’t hide, what good would it do to run.”
She laughed, her voice soft as the wind. “I said we couldn’t fight here, but that doesn’t mean we can’t fight somewhere else.”
Tossing the rope out as far as she could, it landed on the mangled root near Liam. He inched his way it with his good arm. The bellowing only grew closer as he worked his way towards the dry patch of ground where Saoirse and the hounds waited, their wide eyes watching the darkness in silence.
Duana paced the low-lit room of the stone keep, her steps carving a worn path into the layers of dirt that had covered the ancient structure for centuries. Watching Saoirse’s sister intently, Iesult sipped from a goblet of wine. When she could stand Duana’s pacing no longer,the witch queen popped to her feet and snapped her fingers.
“You, creature!” She bellowed to the nearest reanimated villagers. One scuffled forward, his slack skin mottled grey and black as the effects of
Duana’s spell begun to wear off. It wouldn’t be long before the dozens of villagers bodies crumpled to dust.
“Bring me more wine,” the queen demanded.
The undead human creature shuffled off as Duana continued her march around the chamber, muttering words under her breath as she turned one way and then the other.
“Duana, will you please stop your pacing. It’s making me feel neurotic.”
The scarred witch stopped and looked up with a strangled gesture. “I can’t. What if they fail?”
“They won’t. Now, come,” Iesult pointed to the chair behind her. “Sit and drink with me. All will be well.”
As the queen sat back down, Duana followed behind her and wearily sat at the edge of the seat. When the servant came back into the room, he knocked over a cart of rusty bowls and platters, sending Duana off the edge of her seat. The chair flew back behind her and clattered to the ground.
Iesult rolled her eyes. “Please, cousin. If you don’t stop and rest, your magic will dwindle away even more. You must take in sustenance and rest. Stop worrying about the plan. The king is caged, his warriors are scattered, the village burns, and soon we will have your sister. Everything you hoped for is happening.”
Yet Duana could not relax. The cup of wine sat on the table untouched. Her one good eye focused on the doorway, as if she was waiting for someone to charge through and impale her where she sat. When she could take it no longer, she fled the room with Iesult yelling after her.
“Where are you going now?!”
Brigid awoke to find herself covered in the blood of the king’s men. She wanted to scream, but her body only produced a pitiful noise that made her cringe. She lifted her hands to eye level and howled. Dangles of blood-matted fur and sharp claws were in place of her once delicate hands. Attempting to feel her face, a deep moan of sadness overtook her as she realized that it hadn’t been a dream. The witches had indeed turned her into a beast. That also meant that she had really torn the king’s warriors to pieces. She felt her stomach lurch and she stumbled over the broken pieces of furniture and mangled bodies strewn about her newlywed’s cottage. It had held so many wonderful memories until this moment. Yet as she lost bits of half-digested flesh into the ruins of her home, she felt nothing but darkness and shadows burning through her mind. She was a monster. They had made her a monster.
The smell of smoke was heavy on the air. From broken window she could see the whole of the valley as it burned. Most of the homes were charred black, gutted from the raging infernos that spread across Darkwood. The bodies of the king’s army were strewn everywhere alongside their mounts.
Brigid had nothing left to expel, but she heaved again at the sight.
I should just wait for the fire to overtake me, she told herself as she watched the flames leap.
An image of Liam came to mind and her dark thoughts fled before thoughts of her husband. Worried that he was among the dead, she broke down the ragged door, shattering it with her massive bulk. She found she could walk on two feet and lumbered like a bear across the village, examining body after body. Most of the men had been torn to shreds, barely recognizable as anything human except for the bits of uniform that clung to what was left behind. Yet she could smell that they were not her love. Their scent, though covered in the tang of iron and other foul stenches, was not Liam’s.
A plan began to form in her mind, as she realized that she had complete control of herself again. She thought that if Liam was in her shoes he might do the same crazy thing that she was contemplating. Brigid hadn’t found her husband’s body, and it gave her hope that she was still alive. Even if she would never see another day as a woman again, she couldn’t give up on her husband. She couldn’t.
Changing directions, she headed to the west towards the ruins of the ancient city hidden in the woods, her thoughts churning with a solitary thought.
Kill the witches.
to be continued…..