The black witch, p.4
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       The Black Witch, p.4

           Robert D. Jones
 
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  She thought about heading back, but the little fire that Harald had lit was like a beacon on top of the hill and it reassured her that she wasn't far from friends. She ventured on, the grit crunching beneath her boots and pulled her fur hood around her ears. The ground began to give ever so slightly with each step and she came upon a little stream trickling away along the sandy bottom. She knelt down and scooped up the fresh water and thought how happy the others would be to refill their drink skins.

  Isolde looked up to the sky. The great stars above shone through the clear night and the full moon slowly sailed high, bursting out from the canopy of pines on the cliff above. The nocturnal world woke up in all its splendour. Birds of the night began to hoot and flutter high above her. A little longer, she said to herself, no need to go back yet.

  She splashed through the shallow stream and crossed over to the far shore, wandering toward the other cliff. But something seemed off. The hair on her neck stood up and she spun around. Had she heard steps in the sand behind her? She walked on but kept her ears pricked up. Schh... schh... schh... She was sure something soft was ghosting her footsteps. She spun around, but nothing. The way she had come was clear. It was dark, but she could see well enough by the light of the moon that the valley was empty. She squinted into the night, straining her eyes and slowly circled her surroundings, forcing herself to see deep into the gloom. Nothing emerged from where she came. The creek was clear, all was silent, nothing on the hill... eyes! Two blood red eyes gazed down at her from the cliff above like glowing coals in a hellish night. Her heart stopped.

  Soft, snarling growls trembled out from the dark, she could feel the beast's lips quivering in hatred. The glowing embers of the wolf's eyes had her stuck to the spot like a mortified deer. Isolde was stuck to the spot as the wolf let out a blood-curdling howl. It arched its head back and cried out prayers to its moon goddess. One by one the rest of the pack joined in on the killing song from unseen shadows.

  Isolde's heart beat in furiously and she gasped for breath. She had been stalked, set up, and surrounded. The huge wolf lunged down from its rocky platform, its shaggy coat of jet black fur feral and matted. It stood as tall as her chest and held its head low, slowly moving up toward her with all the grace of a serpent. The spell broke and Isolde's hand darted to her side and drew her mother's sword. The Dragon's Eye blazed in furious swells of citrine yellow and crimson red. She threw the blade up in front of her with shaking hands, trying to keep the sword between her and the beast.

  Splash... splash... splash... two more hell hounds darted across the creek and took rank next to their leader. They were lean with scruffy grey coats and snapped and growled with the same ferocity of the leader. The smaller wolf lunged, its lips curled back, eyes red with hate, teeth barred. She thrust her sword up, the blade found its mark and tore into the grey flesh of the wolf. It howled with pain and slid limply down on top of her. Its lifeless body pinned her down on the sandy grit. Her hands throttled the sword's grip. Its blade lost under the shaggy mass of grey fur. She kicked violently. The other beasts howled. In seconds the foul black leader was on her. The heavy wolf crawled up onto the dead underling and stared down at Isolde with barred teeth. Her face went blue as the weight on her chest forced the breath from her lungs. The wolf snarled, its eyes intent on the prey, yellow teeth like razors giving way to thick drool stringing from black lips. She clenched her eyes, suffocating under the weight.

  Something snapped and hissed. An arrow's shaft cracked open the great beast's head and the fire in its eyes snuffed out. The weight on top of her suddenly released as the black wolf burst into a thousand obsidian crows that exploded into the air above her. A cacophony of shrieks and feathers retreating into the night sky. The wolves howled and screamed in chorus. She wriggled and clawed her way free from the dead-weight of the first beast. As she kicked her way to freedom, the hymn of growling grew stronger, the ring of wolves had tightened.

  My sword, where is my sword! She panicked realising the blade was still buried in the first beast. Red eyes surrounded her and one by one the wolves snapped forward and edged closer. One darted too close and she swung her fist out sending it back yelping. A second lunged, its teeth intent for her soft neck. Crack! Another feathered arrow found its mark and the fiend collapsed lifelessly in front of her. A flame flickered from beyond the creek. A voice roared. Suddenly, Skaldi drove the ring of eyes apart as he found his place next to Isolde, a flaming branch in his hand.

  "Be gone! Your queen has forsaken you!" He swung the flame out at the wolves forcing a choir of low howls like screams. "Be gone!"

  One by one the eyes of the night flickered out as the wolves turned tail. No howling returned that night.

  CHAPTER VI

  Harald clenched his jaw until his teeth were grinding. Isolde's screams tore him apart. They sent cold shivers deep into his soul as she screamed and screamed into the night until he could hear her hoarse voice burning. He raced down the slope, half sliding, half falling, gripping the yew bow in his hand as though it was the only thing that could keep him alive. Skaldi was with her. He could see the old man's face covered in deep shadows from his flickering flame-torch. He was trying to calm a frenzied Isolde.

  "Where were you!" she screamed, catching sight of Harald as he burst into the light.

  "Wheeerrrree!" Her voice shrieked and she lunged at him with pounding fists.

  Harald's heart was pounding, everything was happening so fast. He didn't think. He just caught her and enveloped her deep into his arms.

  "Shhh, Isolde, it is okay," he said feeling her shaking body.

  She buried her head deep into his chest and sobbed.

  Harald looked up at Skaldi. The old man wore a look of grievance that made Harald tremor.

  "Skaldi," he said, "what was that thing?"

  The old man met his eyes and Harald could see how deep his eyes had sunk. It was a look of desperation.

  "Orlog..." Skaldi whispered, "it was the Black Witch herself."

  Harald's knees went weak and he trembled for a moment. Isolde wept harder and for a moment he thought she was holding him up... again.

  Skaldi rubbed his face with his old gnarled hands.

  "Did...did I kill her?" Harald asked slowly.

  Skaldi half laughed at the question. "If only... but I am afraid that your arrow was not the first mortal blade to strike that foul creature... and I fear it might not be the last. She cannot be killed. Not by the mundane in any case."

  Isolde pushed herself out of Harald and wiped her face, "How do we kill her?" she asked through a half sob.

  "Kill her?" Skaldi said, "my dear girl we have greater worries, we have very quickly become the hunted."

  "Then what do we do!?" she asked.

  "I don't know," he said, "but my mind needs silence. We rest tonight, tomorrow we move."

  ***

  As morning came, the camp was quickly packed and again the trio were off. A light wind rolled in from the eastern mountains and birds chirped as they hopped from tree to tree. They crossed the creek and filled their skins with fresh water from the stream. The bodies of the wolves lay by the bank, their hulking bodies no longer the size of the giants which Isolde remembered in the dark. Up the incline they went and back into the dense woods. Up and down hills they climbed all day, but despite Isolde's bruises, she felt energised, like yesterday's trek had broken off the old rust of a machine and now she could run smoother and more efficiently. She easily kept up with Skaldi's pace and the three were happy to walk in silence, each busy with their own thoughts.

  "Skaldi," Isolde asked, breaking the old man's meditations, "I don't understand anything anymore. Why can't we kill Orlog? Why the wolves and crows?"

  Skaldi kept his pace and thought on the question.

  "Why can't we kill Orlog?" he mumbled slowly, "well, I suppose you can, but it would be like grabbing hold of water. She changes, you see, she is a queen of illusion."

  Isolde nodded but she had no idea wh
at the old man meant, "and what about when we were alone in the woods, that laughing on the wind?"

  Harald quickly cut in, "elves right, Skaldi? No one believed me but I saw them too."

  Skaldi stopped and turned around to face his companions.

  "What exactly did you see, Harald?" he asked.

  Harald looked at Skaldi and began to bite the nail of his thumb before gazing off into the distance, trying to summon some dream-like memory.

  "Well," he said, "I suppose it would have been about four or five weeks ago now. I was out near the banks of the Jule, maybe a mile or so further than the standing stones, trying to track a stag. It was a calm night, the moon was high, not quite full, and out of nowhere, I heard this laughter behind me. I span around thinking some kids had followed me but the forest was dead. Like, really dead, no birds, no crickets, nothing. I remember a chill coming up from behind and knew that something wasn’t right, but when I turned to go home, the wind came down from the east in such a blast that it nearly sent me back into the river. I wrestled on forward trying to keep my ground but as soon as I found my footing, the wind was gone. I ran home as quick as I could but no one believed me."

  Skaldi listened to the story with intent interest.

  "Why do you say it was elves?" he asked.

  "What else could it be?" Harald answered.

  "It could be many things, none of them good I fear," Skaldi said half under his breath.

  Isolde looked at Harald, "the exact same thing happened to us by the stones the night we left. But the wind only released us at the edge of a fall, it was trying to kill us."

  Harald was stunned, "so do you believe me now?"

  "I don't even know if I believe my own eyes, Harald!" she said, "Skaldi, what does it mean?"

  The old man didn't answer but took rest on the fallen trunk of a rotted pine under the cool shade of the airy woods. He pulled his pipe out of his robes and lit it up. Harald and Isolde sat down near him and all enjoyed a little rest from the march with minds full of questions. Slowly Skaldi began to answer.

  "I don't know what it means exactly," he confessed, "the old ones have names for these things, Sidhe, they used to call them. You would know them as faeries I suppose. But the intention was maligned, capricious with deadly intent. They did not want us to return." He trailed off in his own thought and puffed his pipe. "I do not think they were Sidhe, to corrupt something that is inherently good by nature would take time. Perhaps they were shadows. Maybe it is Orlog spinning her webs of deceit once more. But why would she return?"

  "How could she return from the frozen wastes? It's impossible!" said Harald.

  "Not impossible," Skaldi replied, "nothing in this world is impossible. She may have crawled back in silence, hidden from our eyes. Or perhaps our eyes have become weary and we missed her. If she has returned, then I would say she has been summoned. But that is a dark thought, and I will not speak on it. Not until we know more."

  "What do you mean summoned?" asked Isolde, but Skaldi never answered, he had retreated back into his own thoughts and sat in quiet contemplation.

  ***

  After a while, Isolde and Harald got up and ventured off to explore their surroundings. They agreed the little valley looked like a good place to spend the night. They strolled through the cool air of the woods together with the birds singing all around them. The ground was laden with the last bloom of wild flowers before winter. Violet cyclamens and small aqua gentians had crawled out from the ivy and undergrowth along with golden thistles and red-rich toadstools. Even as winter approached, life flourished here in the forest. They walked together and enjoyed the gentle calm of the day.

  "How are you feeling, Isolde," Harald asked.

  "Broken," she laughed, "but alive. Thank you, Harald. You always have been true. Maybe we will make a hero of you yet."

  Colour flushed to his cheeks and he smiled.

  "You had me worried you know," he said.

  Isolde snorted, "Harald, you worry about everything."

  "I'm not kidding, Isolde," he said, looking deeply into her emerald eyes. She noticed his own sparkling in the sun, glistening and looking deeply back at her. "When I saw that beast above you..."

  His words trailed off, they weren't needed. Here, lost in the deeps of nature the two could read each other's minds. For the first time in her life, Isolde saw Harald in a different light. He stood so proud before her and she suddenly realised that the cowering boy of the village was only a shell. She looked at his dark hair sweeping back off his face, his strong jawline and soft full lips. Isolde’s heart was racing and she realised that he was still looking at her. His eyes were mesmerising, they drew her in and made her feel vulnerable. She wanted to hold him, but not like the friend she had grown up with. The thought made her nervous but the desire burned deep in her heart. She looked at him longingly and played with her hair. Harald smiled, seized the moment and took her in his arms. He brought her in tight by the hips and she squeezed back. Isolde didn't understand why, but in that moment her eyes welled up and she smiled. She felt happy and safe. He squeezed her tighter, his hand sliding up to the back of her neck and she nuzzled into his shoulder.

  "I'm sorry," she whispered to him.

  "What for?" he asked.

  "Everything. I thought you were a coward."

  "I'm not a hero, Isolde," he said slowly, "but I care for you so much."

  He squeezed her tighter her heart was light and she couldn't stop smiling.

  Eventually, they let each other go. Harald took Isolde's hand in his and she smiled as they walked back to where they left Skaldi as though she was still living in a dream. The old man hadn't moved and was still puffing on his pipe, letting little white rings float into the air. They left the old man in his own world and settled down for the night.

  ***

  They woke early the next day to a dark dawn of misty dew and drizzling rain. Dull grey clouds had emerged and far off thunder rumbled through the sky like the distant echoes of a primordial battle. The rain had begun to fall in heavy drops, sparse at first but slowly building up to heavy showers that persisted through the day.

  "Isolde, You look like a drowned rat," Harald teased as she frowned at him.

  They trudged on through the woods. Small flows of water had begun to make the valleys slow moving and the hill-tops exposed them to the cold wind that blew down from the north.

  "Mjolkum is sending his scouts," Skaldi muttered as he pushed on through the wind.

  The gusts of wind and rain grew and the temperature dropped, they were heading north, not as far as the frozen wastes, not even close, but still, the weather here was wilder than what they were used to. The cold bit deep, the rain washing over Isolde's face felt like ice cutting her skin. She gritted her teeth and went on, trying to focus instead on the resinous smells filling the air. The wet pines, the earthy aroma of the undergrowth, the fresher air, she filled her bruised lungs and dreamed of sitting by her father's hearth.

  Again they began another ascent up a steep slope. The undergrowth slipped under her boots and Isolde quickly found herself scrambling on all fours trying to scamper from rocky outcrops to trees to gain ground. Her feet slipped and the thick mass of rotted pine needles gave way to wet mud and dirt. She could see Skaldi and Harald also struggling on above her. It was hard going but she clawed herself higher and higher. Craning her neck up once more, she could see Skaldi and Harald had found the top. But they were squatting low, Harald raising his finger to his mouth, signalling for silence. She moved as quick as she could, her heart racing in excitement, her chest burning from the bitter cold and exhaustion. She could hear something over the hill's crest, murmuring, shouting maybe, but the wind and rain drowned it out. Harald and Skaldi stooped low, peering down into the next valley like wild scouts. Isolde snuck up between them and gasped at the horror of the scene below.

  CHAPTER VII

  Mjolkum had begun his first true assault from the sky and thunder crackled and lightning barr
ed its teeth across the black clouds. Isolde screwed her eyes as the wind and rain pelted into her face. Below her, an ancient path snaked its way through a wide valley. No trees grew there, only the low shrubs and wild grass. She was horrified, Hrothgar's armed men had caught up with them. She couldn't tell if they were the same thugs that had come to the gates four nights earlier, but they all bore the black raven on their round shields and looked like giants in their heavy furs and leathers. There were five, all standing around three men on their knees. It was clear they were to be butchered. She strained to see the details through the howling winds. Two of the prone men had black hair, fur clothing, their heads bowed, they looked about her father's age. The third was young, she was sure he could be no older than herself, his shaggy blonde hair soaked up the rain and clung to his face. He defiantly held his head high at the raiders. One of Hrothgar's men came forward. He truly was a giant she thought and dressed better than the others. The dull glimmer of chainmail stood out against his thick furs. An axe was tucked into his leather belt, a round-shield strapped to his back, and a long plaited mohawk fell heavily down his back. Dark intertwining tattoos ran down his scarred face. He said something quietly to the young blonde man, and Isolde flinched when she saw his great hand rise up and strike him across the face. The young man crashed into the muddy ground.

  She took Skaldi by the shoulder and leant in to be heard.

  "I have to get closer," she hissed.

  "Don't be a fool, stay..." but Skaldi's words fell on deaf ears as Isolde slipped off down the hill.

  She hopped from outcrop to outcrop, trying to keep out of view. The men bellowed laughs and struck out at their prisoners. They were clueless to her presence. She crept closer and closer until finally, she was on their level, crouched behind a shrubby conifer and straining to hear what was being said.

 
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