The black witch, p.2
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       The Black Witch, p.2

           Robert D. Jones
 
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  He looked back at his daughter and smiled, but inside he was empty.

  "She was like you, Isolde... she was just like you. Do me a favour," he said, "don't make my life hard in front of everyone again. You put me on the spot you know."

  Isolde nodded doing her best not to laugh.

  "Do your chores, okay?" he continued, "there's plenty to do around here before winter comes and there are more important things in this world than trying to be a hero."

  The smile left her face, but she met her father's eyes and nodded. He noticed the same rebellious spark her mother once had.

  ***

  It was approaching noon by the time Isolde emerged from the gloom of the Jarl's hold. The morning sun had chased away the long shadows cast from the eastern mountains and a chill wind blew in from the north. But the sun was warm on her skin and it was a new day. Eyndale sprawled out before her as it tumbled down the gentle hill. Small houses packed against each other forming narrow alleys that darted away from the main street like new growth from a sapling's trunk. Gentle plumes of smoke wafted into the sky from beneath their thatched roofs and the sweet smell of smoked meats lingered in the air. The people busied themselves in their daily labours, preparing for the oncoming of winter. The last of the thin harvest was being brought in, animal pens were being repaired and the weakest livestock rounded up for slaughter. She walked down toward a small crowd gathering at the base of the hill who were laughing and cheering.

  "Well here she comes now," a voice cried out, "your wonderful shield-maiden, come to save us all again."

  It was Ulfer. He stood before Harald with a small audience around him. His short sandy hair was cropped tight to his head and his brown eyes shone with glee as Isolde approached.

  "Our hero!" he said to her, "thank Throndir and all the gods that you were there to protect us, glorious warrioress."

  The crowd snickered but Isolde stood tall, her golden hair waving in the afternoon breeze.

  "Shut up, Ulfer. Where were you last night? Hiding again?"

  she said.

  Ulfer forced a laugh loaded with sarcasm. He stood a head higher than Isolde but was still lifting his chin in an attempt to look taller in her presence.

  "If it weren't for you, shield-maiden, then our cowardly Harald might actually have been forced to do something."

  The crowd laughed and cheered and Isolde noticed Harald's shaking hands and his face turning pale.

  "Let him go, Isolde." A harsh and condescending voice cut in, "if he weren't off with the faeries half the time or looking for elves then he might have the guts to stand up for himself."

  Harald's eyes darted up and went wide. Isolde followed them, it was Arne, his father.

  "Look at him," Arne said, "he is a coward, wouldn't fight if you slapped his head."

  The crowd laughed and Ulfer ran with the idea, he stepped up to Harald and slapped his cheek. Isolde grimaced, hit him she thought, strike him back. But Harald stood as rigid as a stone. She couldn't stand to watch it anymore.

  "Come with me," she said taking Harald's hand and pulling him away.

  The crowd jeered as the pair retreated and shouted at their backs.

  "Why didn't you hit him?" she asked as she led him toward the gates.

  "He's not worth it," he said under his breath.

  "It's not about him, Harald, it's about you and what people think!" she spoke quickly, her voice rising in anger, "everyone thinks you're smaller than a mouse, Ulfer walks right over you."

  Harald didn't say anything but followed Isolde out of the town and toward the flowing stream of the River Jule.

  "For once in his life," Isolde began, "your father might actually be right, you are off with the faeries too much."

  Harald snorted. "They're real. No one believes me but I have seen them."

  Isolde turned around and looked at him. He was only a year older but already beginning to look like a man, his face smooth and clean, a swarthy tan darkened by the light stubble of youth. His shaggy dark brown locks were tied back off his face and flowed down to his shoulders letting her see his soft brown eyes.

  "They are real," he said again.

  Isolde shook her head, "No one cares if you say they're real or not, Harald. It doesn't even matter, what matters is that you let everyone walk all over you."

  Harald's eyes broke away from Isolde and his lips tightened. She could see her words had hurt him.

  "You're wrong," he said.

  "How am I wrong, everyone says you're a coward and you keep proving it for them."

  "I don't care about that," he said, "you're wrong about the faeries or elves... whatever they were. Orlog's back and they're about, do you think it's a coincidence?"

  "I don't really care if it's connected. I don't even care if they are out there. If Orlog is back, I will kill her. I will kill her, Harald, and people will respect me because they will know I was never afraid. And you will stay here and be walked on forever and your name will never be remembered."

  "That's not true," he said, "I will be respected."

  Isolde snorted and turned her back on him. She needed space. Today had been awful, and she knew just what to do to make it better.

  ***

  Isolde hiked along the edge of the river in the dying light of the day. The world opened up before her. She breathed deeply and gazed in wonder at the fantastic colours of the barren fields sprawled out over the plains to her left across the water. The last light of the sun saturated them in deep oranges and auburns as if they were alight in brilliant flame. She followed the water downstream toward the pine trees that towered into the sky marking the beginning of the great Watcher's Wood. A brisk wind blew down from the north and whisked her face. She loved the feeling, it made her feel alive and awake and she could imagine the stress of the past two days gently easing out of her skin and loosening her tight shoulders. The gentle rush of the stream running shallowly along its stony bed relaxed her mind and the thoughts of Wulfric, the witch, her father, and Harald slowly washed away.

  She kept walking and it wasn't long until she reached the eaves of the great wood that spread for many miles to the north and west of her home. The trees loomed above her as she craned her neck to see their tips. The air was fresher here she thought, the world more natural and at ease. She loved the forest and always had. But don't venture too far came the voice of her father, wavering in the back of her mind. The setting sun spread out the last of its rays through the sparse gaps in the woods appearing as flames dancing upon the air, and as the light caught the glimmer of small gnats and fireflies that hovered in silence, she wondered if magic really did live here.

  She followed the river Jule for a while longer until the brambles thickened and the valley dropped too steeply in its western flow. Here she struck out north, climbing the steep slope of a hill along the same weathered path she always took. Up and up the hill she climbed with the pine needles covering the forest floor in a thick blanket, concealing ancient steps of weathered stone. They looked like bedrock beneath the needles, but she knew the path and where it led.

  Her legs burned as she reached the summit and she smiled at the sight of the clearing in the thick woods. The pines stood like a perfect circle of silent guardians, swaying and speaking to each other in ominous creaks. In the centre of the clearing were the standing stones of Garath Nuir, twelve great monoliths erected in a circle. The bluestone slabs were a marvel to Isolde, this place always gave her the solitude needed to soothe her troubled soul. She moved between the stones and traced the remains of their intricate engravings. She knew the design of each, or what was left after the weathering of countless years and the ever intrusive moss that flourished in their crevices.

  Isolde sat back in the shade, closing her eyes and rested her back against one of the great stones. She closed her eyes and leant her head back as she inhaled the forest's aura. The wind blew gently through the pines, who seemed to speak quietly amongst themselves. But something was wrong. She opened her
eyes and jumped up. Where are all the animals? She wondered. She had not noticed, but the sun had set too, and an inky darkness spread out around her. Her heart pounded. She was alone and something was close by, she could sense it. Something must have startled the animals away. A branched snapped. She crouched low and drew a dagger from her belt. She strained her ears, but only the wind and trees could be heard. Her breathing was heavy and she struggled to slow it down. Crack. Another branch, but this time behind her. She snapped her head around to find the source.

  "Where is it," she muttered, squeezing the life out of the handle of her blade.

  Something moved in the corner of her eye, like glitter caught in the wind, too fast for her to be sure. A gentle breeze blew through her hair carrying hollow laughter like distant children in a spring fair. She was spinning frantically trying to see everywhere at once. She was being circled.

  "Come out!" she called, her voice shaking, "Harald," she shouted, "is this some kind of joke? Come out before I drag you out!"

  Silence answered her as she strained to hear, to smell, to see anything.

  "Well now," a voice called out, "that is no way to speak to an old friend is it?"

  Isolde spun around, eyes wild, dagger raised, arms tense, ready to strike at any moment only to find herself face to face with an old man. Her heart dropped and she let her arm fall to her side as she sighed in relief.

  "I could have killed you," she said.

  CHAPTER III

  Skaldi towered over her. He was tall, so tall that Isolde had to look up to meet his eyes. But he was also thin, as though he hadn't eaten a proper meal in years. He wore the simple grey garb of a travelling pilgrim with the deep set hood cascading down into a robe that swept the forest floor as he walked. His face, from what was not hidden by the long flowing grey beard, was weathered with age, and the deep lines that gnarled at his skin only added to the mystique that everyone said surrounded him. His eyes were dark and deep set like wells of knowledge that were free to all, and his deep soothing voice flowed like honey.

  "That's no way to speak to an old friend now is it?" he calmly repeated.

  "I could have killed you, Skaldi." She said in shock, but all he did was laugh and wrap his arms around her. She fell deep into his embrace and for the first time in years, she felt a warmth she had forgotten she missed.

  "I wasn't talking about me, Isolde," he said, refusing to let her go, "I meant that if I were Harald than that would be no way to speak."

  Isolde broke his embrace and looked up at the old man, her face full of sorrow.

  "You don't know Skaldi. Things have changed." She said.

  "Things always change, Isolde," he smiled, "just don't forget that you are changing too. Don't be so harsh on those that love you. Harald is a good man."

  Isolde sighed and changed the subject, "so where have you been? What news have you brought with you?"

  "Everywhere Isolde, but mostly in the south, there's trouble abroad," Skaldi said, "but nothing is of more interest to me now than all this change that you have mentioned. Do tell an old man what is going on."

  The two returned to the stone circle and sat down against the ancient monuments. The rising moon shone down on them through the clearing of trees and filled the hilltop with silvery light. Isolde paused for a moment to think her words through,

  "Well," she began, "it's been a while since you've been around. Do you know about Hrothgar?"

  "Hrothgar?" Skaldi murmured, "the High-King may have escaped my councils but not my attention. What is bothering you about him?"

  "Skaldi!" Isolde snapped, "don't act a fool, I know you know. Hrothgar took the north like lightning in the sky, now he's taking the south. He had men at our gates last night!"

  "Did he now?"

  "Yes, he did."

  "And what came of it, Isolde?"

  She paused for a moment.

  "Nothing, I guess," she said. "They wanted grain, a payment... no, a tribute they said. But father refused and they left."

  Skaldi smiled. "That doesn't sound like too much trouble if you ask me."

  "But they'll be back," her voice quickened, "and how are we suppose to defend ourselves?"

  "So you think your father made the wrong decision?" Skaldi asked, his eyes sparkling as they fixated over Isolde.

  "I think we need to do something!" she said.

  "And what would you do if you were Jarl, Isolde?"

  "I would... I would..." Isolde stammered for an answer, "I don't know."

  "Well think about it. You are a woman now and the blood of a mighty shield-maiden courses through your veins. What would you do? Your words are as powerful as any now, choose them wisely."

  Isolde had no answer for the old man. She sat in contemplation and Skaldi watched. Her face strained, her eyes squinted into the distant space of thought, she was trying to conjure a solution, yet soon the blood filled her face and she surrendered in frustration.

  "I don't know," she said.

  "Far better to admit it than say you have an answer when none is present," he said, "well, what are the choices? Would you have killed the men that came?"

  "No," she slowly conceded, "no, that would send a message of war and we can't hold out against Hrothgar and the men of Ravenscar."

  "Would you have paid the grain and bought your safety?"

  "Never," she snapped, "I'd rather die than live like a slave! And if we had paid him, why would he not come back to demand more?"

  "Would you if you were him?"

  "I am not him, Skaldi, and I would not. But he would I think."

  "I think he would too," Skaldi said, smiling at Isolde's answers. "So we cannot kill them because they would kill us, and we cannot pay them or they will starve us. Could we refuse the payment and send them home?"

  "I don't know... if they return then we are in the same situation, right?"

  "Yes, if they return," he stressed, "but they may not. Hrothgar knows you sit on the border. Your freedom is not only won by blood but by geography, you are a small town on the edge of many kingdoms, he may not return because the reward is not worth the risk."

  "But he may still return."

  "He may. We cannot discount it. Yet fate may surprise us all and anything could happen between now and then. Who can say?"

  "Then what is the right answer, Skaldi?" Isolde snapped in sudden frustration, "how do we know what to do?"

  Skaldi laughed at the outburst and his eyes lightened with joy, "My dear, Isolde," he started, "So much like your mother. Do you not understand that there is no right answer? You just have to decide what is for the best at the time, and sometimes that is only a choice between the lesser of evils. Imagine your father, the Jarl, set upon by thugs at the gate, he had to make this decision on the spot. Do you still think he made the wrong one? Perhaps not the right one, but maybe that choice wasn't an option. If his decision did nothing more, then it has at least bought you all a little more time."

  Isolde looked at Skaldi through squinted eyes. She knew he had tricked her, but he was right and she hated it.

  "You treat me like a child," she muttered, but this troubled Skaldi. His face changed slightly, his smile faded and his eyes darkened a little. He shifted himself on the floor and looked back at Isolde.

  "I treat you the same way in which I treat everyone, Isolde. It is your choice how you react to our conversation, and if that makes you feel like a child then it is no fault of mine."

  "It doesn't surprise me," she said, dismissing his words, "nobody respects me as a woman, let alone the daughter of a Jarl."

  "Maybe you should act in a more respectable way?"

  "Well maybe if people respected me, then I could act respectable," she snapped.

  "Which comes first, Isolde?" he asked. "It is the opinion of many that the hero must prove himself before being called such. Is it not true for all things?"

  Isolde didn't answer him.

  Skaldi continued, "I heard about your little display last night."
<
br />   This caught Isolde off guard. Her cheeks reddened.

  "I could have killed him," she said under her breath.

  "Don't be a fool, Isolde!" Skaldi snapped with an immediacy that shocked her back into the conversation. "Wulfric could have crushed your skull in the palm of his hand if he had chosen to. I have spoken with you for but half an hour now and the energy it has taken to endure your attitude has all but spent me. I have retired from days of hard-fought battle more refreshed than I feel now. If you want to prove yourself so badly then I will give you the opportunity!"

  Isolde sat with her mouth aghast. She had never heard Skaldi speak so brazenly, nor been spoken to so honestly in all her seventeen years. With the ending of his sentence, the old man stood up and fixed his gaze again on the girl. With eyes cast downward, Isolde stood up.

  "I am sorry," she said, "I just want to be seen as an equal."

  "You want more than that," he said, "and you will get what you desire, but do not blame me when you later wish for a happy life of anonymity."

  Isolde was puzzled by the statement but had had enough of lectures.

  "Skaldi," she said, "before you snuck up on me, something was in the woods."

  Skaldi raised an eyebrow, "go on," he said.

  "I don't know, something was following me I think. I heard laughter shifting through the wind, voices maybe. I swear a stream of light danced just out the corner of my eye. But when I tried to find it there was nothing except you."

  "Well, it wasn't me," he frowned and began to murmur to himself. "Light might be the children of the woods maybe, no, too far north I think, the Sidhe perhaps, but unlikely in this age..."

  "Oh," she cut in excitedly, "and the animals are gone. Listen there are none around us."

  He looked up at Isolde perplexed at what she said,

  "Well," he said, "now that is something. How did you feel when all this happened?"

  "I was scared, Skaldi, but I was alone at night in the woods."

  "But you felt happy before?"

  "I felt relieved to be on my own."

  "And now?"

  "I feel tense, safe with you I guess, but it's like I can feel eyes on me."

  "So do I," he murmured, peering over his shoulder.

 
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