Day 56 – Ryoka
“Good morning to you all.”
Belavierr’s words echoed across the street. They were such innocuous words. Delivered politely by a blank face. Luminescent orange eyes with ringed pupils. And the [Witch] herself, tall, dressed like she had walked out of a story.
Not just her either. Seven [Witches]. No—eight. Alevica, Califor, Nanette, Hedag, Mavika, Eloise, Belavierr. And—Wiskeria. She looked up at Belavierr. She’d called her mother.
Ryoka’s head spun. She looked around the crowded street and heard a strangled shout. A woman with a pale face, snappy, fancy clothes compared to many of Riverfarm’s people, stepped forwards.
“Are you quite serious? What is this?”
There was a note of hysteria in the woman’s voice as she pointed. At the [Witches]. At the one called Hedag. Her axe was still bloody. Ryoka’s eyes were drawn to it. The woman, a giant, smiled as the shouting woman’s voice rose.
“She killed Councilman Elmmet! With everyone to see!”
“He deserved it!”
Another man roared that. This one Ryoka vaguely recognized. A huge, balding man—a [Blacksmith] to judge by his clothes, pushed forwards. His face was pale as well, but he pointed furiously at the woman.
“You were there! You saw it, Councilwoman Beatica! I say it was just! Pah! Dead gods, if what we saw was true—”
He spat, looking ill. The Councilwoman or whomever she was stared at the man and then shook her head. She stared past the [Witches] at a woman lying on the ground.
“Miss Rehanna as well? They’ve attacked two people of Lancrel—no, of Riverfarm! Sovereign citizens! Steward Prost, I demand you arrest them at once!”
She pointed a finger at the [Witches]. Eight pointed hats turned and Beatica’s finger quavered. The looks from some of the [Witches]—the hunched Mavika, Califor’s gaze, Belavierr’s—Ryoka edged back from Beatica, as did a lot of the crowd. Beatica’s finger slid sideways out of self-preservation, pointing at a weathered man. Again, Ryoka recognized him.
She muttered to herself. He was a [Steward] now? No—had he been when she last met him? She had no idea.
A figure bent down and whispered to Ryoka. The Runner girl jumped and looked up. Charlay was half-crouched, staring over the heads of the crowd. The Centauress was getting a few odd looks, but, amazingly, in this all-Human crowd she was still far from the most notable thing at the moment. Ryoka hesitated.
“Prost. I know him.”
She stared at Mister Prost. She had been to Riverfarm before. Once. But it was completely different from what she knew! It was four times again as large and the people! The street was filled and this was only a fraction of those present. Ryoka could see more coming this way, some at a run. She stared around. This was Laken’s empire? What had gone on since she’d left? And what was going on now?
The man that Councilwoman Beatica had addressed looked like he was adjusting to all of the events as well. He glanced at a well-dressed [Lady] on his left. Ryoka blinked and realized she had to be Lady Rie Valerund, Ryoka’s target for her delivery. The giant, grey-skinned girl on the right was immediately recognizable to Ryoka as well. Durene towered over all but Belavierr, Hedag, and Charlay. Half-Troll. Laken’s…girlfriend. She looked uncertainly at Prost, then at the Witch named Wiskeria. The hats lying on the ground.
Someone in the crowd hurled that at Hedag. Another pointed at Mavika.
“I saw her! She cursed Rehanna! Burnt the flesh right off her hand!”
Every eye fixed on Rehanna. The woman was passed out. Tears, contorted face—the smell of burnt flesh still hung in the air, appetizing and nauseating at once. Her hand was whole, though. The speaker hesitated.
“She did do it! It was healed—but that [Witch] cursed her!”
“Only after she kicked over Wiskeria’s brew! She made a potion—right magical it was! The best thing I’d smelled in my life! And Rehanna kicked over the whole pot!”
Another man shouted back. He furiously gestured to an overturned cauldron, and brown, foul-smelling liquid drying on the ground. Ryoka eyed the stew. Prost looked over, a frown on his face. He raised his hand and forestalled more shouting.
“Is this true, Ram? Tell me what happened here.”
The man named Ram nodded.
“What happened was—see Wiskeria and Durene came into the village with a stew. Something magical! She was all set to share it out and Lady Rie’s man, Nesor, he said it was the best stew he’d had! We were getting in line when Rehanna rushed over, and the idiot kicked the entire thing over! Started calling our Wiskeria a [Witch] and all sorts of things—she was running away when she grabbed the doorknob and that [Witch]…”
He pointed uncertainly at Mavika and trailed off. Every eye turned to Mavika. Two crows sat on her arms and shoulders. They peered around, unafraid of the crowd. The [Witch] only smiled as Prost turned to her.
“Is this true, Miss?”
“An ill for an ill. That is what I did. The woman called Rehanna repaid goodwill for bad. So she in turn reaped hers. Do you object, [Steward] of this land?”
There was a rhythmic, odd cadence to Mavika’s words. It would have been clichéd to call it ‘cawing’; Ryoka was rather reminded of a [Witch] right out of Macbeth. Mavika could have won first casting if she’d been an actor. Hell, she could walk onto a stage right now and begin citing verse.
But she was the real thing as well. And Ryoka’s skin crawled as the witch’s words provoked a cawing from overhead. The flock of crows circled the houses, making the obnoxious, shrill birdcalls Ryoka knew from home. But again—the crowd shivered as it looked up. There was something different about the cawing than the obnoxious bird flocks that sometimes crossed in the thousands from Ryoka’s world. These crow’s voices sounded too knowing. Mocking, even.
A murder of crows. Ryoka shivered. How fitting for a [Witch]. Why were they here? To meet Laken? Mavika’s words produced a hush, until the Councilwoman, Beatica, spoke up again.
“An ill for an ill? That was nothing more than—than assault!”
She licked her lips as Mavika stared at her. But Beatica went on, her voice strident. She had a presence about her that called attention to her, lent weight to her words. Ryoka’s eyes narrowed. So this was what Laken’s note had mentioned. She was beginning to see, but she stared quietly. Charlay pawed the ground nervously as Beatica went on.
“Mister Prost! Will you allow these [Witches] to simply stride into Riverfarm? They’ve attacked two people in the village within minutes of arriving! That woman is a murderer!”
She pointed at the tall [Witch], the one with the axe. But the [Witch], with her brown hat, didn’t look bothered by the accusation. She just laughed, a great, booming sound without guilt.
“They call me Hedag, Miss. Hedag the [Executioner]. Sometimes Hedag the [Witch]! And I delivered what justice I had with me in my axe. In a swing for a man who deserved no more and no less. Or did you not see me reveal his sins? Do you say it was ill-done? That he deserved better? You saw what he did.”
She faced Beatica and the [Councilwoman] froze a second. Those who hadn’t seen, Ryoka included, stared at the woman. But those who had looked uneasy. And sick. Children clung to their parents and the parents looked as though they wanted to do the same to each other.
“I—know what I saw. Nevertheless! Mister Prost! What is to be done? We demand justice! Lancrel—”
“It isn’t Lancrel that makes the decisions around here!”
The [Blacksmith] roared at Councilwoman Beatica. Looking relieved—Ryoka thought she’d baited his response—the woman turned to him and snapped back.
“Nor is it Riverfarm’s folk, Mister Helm! The responsibility lies solely with Emperor Laken Godart, who we have not seen since arriving in Riverfarm. In his absence, I believe Lancrel’s people deserve a say. Mister Prost—!”
Her words were summoning the crowd’s ire, even in the face of the [Witches]. Ryoka could see it. And now she had a clearer picture. Riverfarm much larger? Check. These Lancrel folk—city dwellers by the look of them if their clothes were any match—check. They outnumbered the villagers Ryoka remembered by far. Throw in a few [Witches], demagogue like Beatica and no wonder Laken had called for Ryoka.
But the question was: what could Ryoka do? She didn’t think she had the ability to just jump into this conversation. Ryoka tensed warily, wondering what was coming next. Beatica might be a skilled Orator, or Skilled, but Ryoka thought she was making a mistake. The seven new [Witches] were eying the woman and the crowd, but only the young one, Nanette, looked afraid as she half-hid behind the one named Califor. Her teacher and the others were regarding Beatica like an annoying bug.
And Ryoka didn’t want to know what the one called Belavierr would do if she was provoked. She was just…staring. Blankly over the heads of the crowd. Then her eyes flicked to Ryoka. The Runner felt Belavierr stepping on her grave. And it wasn’t even dug yet. Her skin prickled. And then Prost spoke. As Beatica was drawing breath, the [Steward] broke off, stepped away from Lady Rie who was whispering urgently in his ears and drew breath.
“Very well! Silence! I’ve made my decision!”
And the crowd went still again. Ryoka felt the second pressure coming from Prost much like the effect Beatica had had. It quelled tongues, brought eyes onto the man. Another Skill? Prost looked around, and then nodded. He raised a hand and began ticking points off on his fingers.
“As I see it, there are three things to address here and now. The arrival of [Witches] into this village. The curse placed on Miss Rehanna. And the death of Councilman Elmmet. I’ve given my thought to all three. And this is what I have to say. Elmmet first.”
He took a breath. And the crowd of hundreds waited. Prost looked around and then he bellowed.
“I say it was just! And if that man stood before me again and I held an axe, I would swing it twice!”
Silence. And then a roar of outrage, shock. Not from those who had seen. Ryoka blinked but Prost’s words shouted over the crowd again. He rounded on the woman with the axe, raised a glowing stone that flickered between blue and red.
“Hedag the [Executioner]. Do you swear before all here present and on your class and under his Majesty, Laken Godart’s name that your Skill revealed Elmmet Patterson’s sins and crimes? Do you swear what we witnessed was the truth, unaltered by any magic or trickery?”
He held it up. Ryoka recognized the truth stone. And the [Witch], the [Executioner], grinned. She planted the axe and leaned on it.
“I swear. It was done justly. And what you saw were that man’s sins, laid out for all to see.”
The stone remained blue as she spoke. An uneasy murmur ran through the crowd. Someone from Lancrel shouted.
“But she murdered Elmmet? He was accused of theft! And it wasn’t proved—”
Prost spun around so fast the man choked on his next words.
“He did more than steal. And we saw his sins, thanks to the Skill [Witch] Hedag used. It was a proper Skill! One that revealed crimes. Like a [Guardsman] would use. I was there. I saw it all. Now, pay heed!”
Prost looked around, and his eyes had their own affixing quality. Ryoka saw his gaze pass over hers, and then go back to her for a second. But then Prost kept moving, and his gaze was haunted, direct. Without doubt.
“Justice was done. I was there at Master Elmmet’s trial and his crimes were revealed. Not just to me, but everyone present! I won’t hide his guilt! If anyone wishes to ask, I will tell you what I saw. Or you may ask those who were there. I cannot imagine they’d forget. But Elmmet’s crimes went beyond thievery and the young shouldn’t hear of what he did. Or anyone who wishes to sleep and think of the man as anything but a monster wearing Human skin. That alone tells you it was just.”
The crowd muttered uneasily. A few voices were raised—
“A Skill? But she’s a [Witch]—”
“With an axe?”
And then a voice, hurled from another man. Ryoka didn’t recognize the [Mayor], Rodivek, but she immediately placed him in Beatica’s camp. The man gestured at Prost, red-faced.
“Nevertheless, Prost! Elmmet was a [Councilman]! You’d hang him without a trial?”
“That was his trial!”
Prost thundered back. Rodivek hesitated. Prost turned around furiously.
“Maybe you didn’t hear me right the first time. I judged the sentence Hedag passed down as just myself! If she hadn’t killed him, I imagine half the folk in the square would have done the same the next minute. I know what I saw.”
He looked at Helm and the man nodded. Prost’s voice was steady as he gazed at the crowd.
“And I have every right to sentence Elmmet to death. Nor would I hesitate, even if Emperor Godart were in this village. If he were but five minutes away as I saw what I did, [Farmer] Ram, I’d have called for a rope and strung him up first and then presented myself to his Majesty for judgment without a doubt in my heart that justice had been done. That was the nature of the crime. The only thing to cry about was how fast the sentencing was done. Too slowly by half, and far too late, say I.”
He paused. And no one had anything to say to that. Not even Beatica. Ryoka wanted to know what Elmmet had done and she didn’t want to know at the same time. But she didn’t doubt Prost. Nor, it seemed, could much of the crowd. And those who might have wanted to speak up were silenced as Prost turned back to the women standing in the center of the street.
“Now to the next point. Miss Rehanna’s injury. I hear from Mister Ram, who I trust, that she gave offense and destroyed something of value. Wiskeria is our [General]. A trusted member of Riverfarm. I’ll ask for more testimonies, but if she did destroy this…magical soup, she will be punished. But hear me, [Witch] Mavika. You will pay a fine for injuring Riverfarm’s citizen. And that same fine will go to Miss Rehanna and she will pay part or all of it for destroying Wiskeria’s work! That’s all!”
Another murmur, but subdued. Mavika stared at Prost, unblinking. Credit to Prost, he didn’t look away or flinch. He met Mavika’s gaze and looked at the others. Only Belavierr gave him trouble. But Prost looked at them and then around at the crowd.
“[Witches]. You are his Majesty’s guests. People of Lancrel, you are his subjects. You came to his lands seeking protection and aid and it was offered freely. And I know there is discontent. Trouble! But I will remind everyone here present of this: you are subject to his rule on this land.”
Prost pointed down at the street. He glared about.
“His Majesty is returning! And until he does, I am in charge. I, the [Steward] of Emperor Godart, and until he returns, my authority rules! Not any Councilwoman, any mob, or any [Witch]! Is that clear?”
He bellowed and there was silence from all corners for a moment. Ryoka whistled very quietly.
“Damn. Prost took a few levels in [Badass] since I last met him.”
“I like him. He shouts a lot.”
Charlay looked approving. Beatica, Rodivek, both were crushed in some way Ryoka understood to be a battle of classes as Prost glared at them. They folded their arms, harrumphed, but didn’t dare speak up. But it was Mavika who spoke up. A crow cawed on her arms and when Prost looked at her, the hunched [Witch] spoke.
“You speak of laws. Of your right to rule, as if you own land and hearts. Perhaps you claim it of these people. But we are [Witches], Emperor’s man. We cannot be anything else. And where we go, we practice our craft. Will you stop us from that? Bind us with laws? Because we will not be held.”
One of the other [Witches], Eloise, sighed. The kindly, short, grandmother of a woman stepped forwards and adjusted her hat. She smiled at Prost, and Ryoka saw her smile. She looked kindly, which, contrasted with Mavika or Belavierr, made you suspect she had darker secrets still. Prost folded his arms.
“You are guests, Witch Mavika. Are you threatening to curse more people? Or unleash your flock?”
Eloise sighed as Mavika looked at her.
“Neither. Allow me to explain. We are [Witches], Steward Prost. And we have come here to speak with your [Emperor]. But while we wait, we all have services to offer. I, for instance, sell tea.”
Prost stared at Eloise. So did much of the crowd. The woman smiled, completely at ease with the incredulous looks.
“Teas, tonics, and treatments for what ails a body. Come to me if you seek a [Healer]’s remedies. For tooth rot, or just company. I do enjoy chatting. My fellow [Witches] offer different things. Mavika wishes to be assured that she will have the right to offer her abilities to others.”
Prost looked at Mavika. The [Witch] grinned.
“My flock will clear your fields, [Steward]. Or eliminate pests. I can call fortune or misery. But I must be paid. Worth for work fairly done. Will you gainsay it?”
The man chewed this over and then shook his head.
“No. But remember this. Steal, harm, or threaten others in Riverfarm and the surrounding area, and you will answer to me. The same as anyone else. You may practice your business so long as it is fairly done. As long as it does not harm anyone else. Or you will leave or be dealt with. Is that clear?”
Mavika eyed him. The crows cawed and flapped their wings. But at last, she nodded.
“Very well. I am agreed, until a further pact is struck.”
She dipped her head once. Prost nodded as well. Ryoka thought that was the end of it, but one last woman stepped forwards. Hedag. She boomed as Prost turned to look at her, vexed.
“Mister Steward! You call on us not to harm a hair on another soul’s head. But it is my business to harm and help. I fear I’ll break your laws, and do it again and again! So. I call on the rights of my other class. [Executioner].”
An uneasy stir ran back through the crowd. Prost frowned.
“Meaning? You aren’t going to execute—”
A booming laugh interrupted him. Hedag slapped her chest as she guffawed.
“Of course not! Dead gods, but it’s been long since I walked places so near to civilization. Is Riverfarm so close you’ve forgotten my role? The axe is a last resort. But I call on my other duties! Judge and arbiter. Where there are crimes, I find them. Do you know me, Mister Steward?”
“I know your name. And your reputation.”
The [Witch] nodded proudly.
“Just so, then. I am Hedag alone. And you have your laws and I bring mine. Will you let me work here? I will cut no man or woman down. But I will not promise to leave those that need my craft unscathed.”
She gestured around. Ryoka didn’t know what that meant, but Prost did. And so did some of the villagers. He nodded after only a beat.
“I grant you leave, then. But whatever you do, Miss Hedag, it will be alone.”
The [Witch] swept her head off and bowed once. Beatica spluttered at this.
“Steward Prost! You can’t just let that woman—”
“Councilwoman Beatica, silence!”
Prost snapped back. The woman shut up, affronted. Prost shook his head.
“I know who Hedag is. And if she has a rank, it is that of Watch Captain. You may not know of her, but I do. As do many from villages like Riverfarm, I’ll wager. If I were you, Councilwoman Beatica, I would educate yourself about how we do things in villages far from your rule of law. Now, that’s all! This gathering is adjourned. Back to your tasks if you have them! I need men to take care of the body at the stocks. We’ll sort out the rest and you’ll hear what happens over your supper! Clear the street! Wiskeria, Lady Rie, Durene, with me please. Ram! Helm! Beycalt! Get your folks to work! Now!”
His words broke up the scene at last. Ryoka saw people start and look around uneasily, but Prost was already striding forwards, chivvying them off, reminding them that they had places to be. Jobs to do. He was decisive! The [Witches] gathered around Wiskeria as she pointed at the hats, still clearly distressed. And Ryoka hesitated. Someone poked her in the side and she yelped.
The Centauress looked delighted at Ryoka’s reaction. She tried to poke again and Ryoka slapped her hand down. The Centauress gestured at the village.
“This is so weird. I’ve never been to a place like this! Have you ever seen so many [Witches]? I just know Alevica…um, are you going to talk to them?”
Ryoka glanced at the coven. Charlay pawed the ground uneasily.
“We’re just here to deliver your package, right?”
“Sort of. Look, I need to talk to—”
“Dead gods, is that a Centaur?”
Someone finally noticed Charlay. The Centauress looked around.
“That’s right! And it’s a Centauress! Who’s asking?”
Some heads turned to stare. Ryoka sighed, but then she saw Prost heading her way. He’d noticed her. Durene spotted Ryoka at last and her eyes widened.
“Ryoka? Ryoka Griffin?”
“Who’s that? Someone you know, Durene?”
The [Lady] peered at Ryoka as the three came her way. Durene looked stunned.
“Yes! Ryoka met Laken back in Invrisil. But I didn’t think—wait, did Laken send you, Ryoka?”
Her eyes widened. Heads turned and Ryoka saw Helm and some other villagers turn and point.
“That’s her! The Runner who came during the winter—”
Durene, Rie, and Prost came to a stop in front of Ryoka and Charlay. The Asian girl coughed, feeling embarrassed by the attention. She smiled weakly at Prost. He was surprised to see her too.
“Hi. Mister Prost. Uh, hi Durene?”
“Miss Ryoka. It’s a pleasure to meet you. But what brings you here? Did his Majesty—”
Prost’s eyes flicked towards Ryoka, then Charlay. Ryoka nodded. She fished in her pouch for the potions.
“That’s right. I have a delivery and uh—”
Prost halted her with a hand. He looked at Rie and she nodded. The man turned back.
“Later. We have to hear what his Majesty sent with you. Or…why you’re here. Lady Rie, we should meet in the throne room in a few minutes. Once the crowd cleared—”
“Of course. This way, Miss Ryoka. And…is your friend with you?”
She looked at Charlay uncertainly. Ryoka hesitated and then nodded.
She looked at Durene. The half-Troll girl was staring. Ryoka uncertainly followed Lady Rie, and Durene looked around. Wiskeria was speaking to the other [Witches]. Belavierr bent.
“Daughter. We have much to discuss.”
“Mother. Why are you—how did my coven end up like this?”
Wiskeria’s eyes were filled with tears as she held one of the pointed hats. Belavierr paused.
“I told you. They were killed after refusing an offer.”
She paused and looked Wiskeria up and down.
“I take it you are well? You appear to be well.”
Durene saw Wiskeria’s head snap up. The other [Witches] sighed. Alevica scratched the back of her head under her hat, and Eloise looked pained.
“Belavierr. You have no tact, do you? Wiskeria, we are sorry—Mavika tried to contact you, but you ignored her crows. She wanted to meet you first to tell you what we had planned. But you refused to come.”
“I got the messages. I thought my coven just wanted me to—”
Wiskeria looked blankly at the hats. Hedag bowed her head, her smile vanishing.
“A mess it is. Come here, Wiskeria.”
She swept the younger woman up in a hug. Wiskeria yelped and Durene saw Califor sigh.
“We can speak later. My concern is where we will be sleeping. I assume we’ll be provided with places to stay? Let us organize that, then—”
The [Witches] marched straight towards Prost. He was busy, arguing with Rodivek and Beatica, sending people back to work, organizing a burial for Elmmet—and Durene stood there. She stared around. And then at the young woman. This was Laken’s help?
Later that day, Ryoka sat in Durene’s cottage. She blinked around the small hut, stared at the bed Durene had given her. And the Centauress trying to lay down on it.
“It’s big enough for me, but it’s not comfy. Hey, do you have any more blankets, Ryoka? We should get some more from the village. Ooh! Wait a second! Suddenly it feels soft! Is this a Skill? A magic bed?”
The delighted Centauress was wriggling on the wide bed. Ryoka looked at her own, smaller cot set up next to it. It did feel ludicrously soft for what was a sleeping bag on a hardwood floor. Durene paused as she fed Frostwing.
“That’s Laken’s Skill. [Blessing of the Hearth]. You’ll sleep like babies even on hay. Want another blanket? Sorry it’s so cramped.”
“Nope! I like it! This is better than most inns! The bed feels amazing! Hey Ryoka, does your bedding feel like that?”
Ryoka glanced up at Charlay. She blinked twice, then nodded.
“Yup. Feels nice. Charlay, why are you taking Durene’s bed?”
The Centauress paused.
“Because she offered it? She said she’s okay with sleeping on the floor! Why? You want to gamble for it? I could toss a coin. Best three out of five?”
She reached for her money pouch. Ryoka shook her head.
“Why are you here? I told you, I’m staying.”
The Centauress paused.
“Right. You did say that. Well—it seemed interesting. So I’m staying too!”
She grinned at Ryoka. The young woman shook her head. But she couldn’t argue. It had been an interesting meeting. Not exactly reassuring on any side, but interesting—
The throne room had an actual throne. Ryoka stared at it while she waited for Rie and Durene and Prost to come back. It was carved, wooden, yes, but it was ornate. Someone had worked hard on it. An actual damn throne. She had forgotten it, but Laken was an [Emperor]. And the people here believed it.
Charlay whistled as she trotted up to the throne and inspected it.
“Wow. An [Emperor]. I heard rumors, but I didn’t believe it! And you know this Human, Ryoka?”
“Sort of. It’s a long story.”
“Really? Well, tell it to me! This is all very interesting. Hey, do you think I’ll fit on this thing?”
Charlay looked at Ryoka as she turned around and backed up. Ryoka bit her tongue, trying not to laugh as the Centauress maneuvered her behind towards the throne.
“Don’t you dare. They’ll kill us. And you’ll never fit!”
“Hah! Watch me—”
That was how Rie, Prost, and Durene found the two. Ryoka trying to persuade Charlay to get off Laken’s throne. As first impressions went—well, she’d had hers with Prost and Durene already.
And after a short explanation, Rie was on the same page. The [Lady] stared at Ryoka. They’d relocated to her home by now and an embarrassed Charlay was being made to sit on the ground. She was so embarrassed at being caught she didn’t object for once.
“So. Emperor Godart’s help that Durene requested showed up in the form of a few low-grade potions. Which was mainly to prompt your arrival.”
She gestured at the small collection of bottles and vials on the table in front of her. Ryoka nodded.
“That’s right. I got a message asking me to come to Riverfarm because there was…trouble. Laken didn’t say, but he implied it.”
He’d actually used some pithy German amid the contents of the message. Ryoka wasn’t sure exactly what he’d said, but she recognized some of the words and had gotten the gist. He was worried, and he sent her. Only, she hadn’t known what to expect and the others certainly hadn’t expected her. Rie stared at Ryoka, drumming her painted nails on the table, heedless of the damage to them.
“He sent you.”
Ryoka scratched her head. After the [Witches], she had to admit, she wasn’t much. Prost on the other hand seemed reassured. He spread his callused palms on the table.
“I think it was the right move.”
Durene blinked. She had been staring at Ryoka from the start. Ryoka vaguely remembered her from her encounter in Invrisil. Only, she remembered a very protective Durene, who had seemed jealous of Ryoka even getting near Laken. This Durene was quieter. And she had a scar, a thick, deep one half-concealed by her sleeveless working tunic. But Prost, the [Steward] looked decisive. He was certainly far different from the cold man grateful for food in his ruined village. He nodded to Durene and Rie.
“Miss Ryoka brought Riverfarm food when the village was starving for it. She ran through the winter, through one of the worst blizzards I’ve ever seen to bring it here and I’d trust her with any delivery.”
He looked at Ryoka and she squirmed, embarrassed. Then she remembered. It had been Ivolethe and the other Frost Faeries who’d helped her on that run. Prost noted the way Ryoka sobered and nodded.
“Did his Majesty send you with anything else? Any messages, Miss Griffin?”
“No. Just a request to help. And I will if I can.”
“How, exactly? Are you some kind of [Steward] yourself? A manager of people? You’re a City Runner, yes? Not a Courier? No offense, Miss Griffin, but I cannot understand what his Majesty was thinking.”
Rie looked exasperated as she put one finger to her lips, staring at Ryoka. The young woman returned the gaze. Rie was striking. Ryoka had no idea how Laken had met her, but the woman’s careful makeup, her dress, and her bearing didn’t fit in Riverfarm. But she seemed to be all aboard Team Laken, so Ryoka weighed her response before replying carefully.
“I’m…an acquaintance of Laken’s. Personally.”
Durene glanced up. She knew that. But Prost and Rie exchanged a quick glance. Rie’s eyes widened a bit and she sat forwards. Now Ryoka felt the [Lady]’s attention fix on her like a spotlight.
“I see. From his nation? His ah, homeland? In…Chandrar?”
The question was probing. Ryoka smiled at Durene and shook her head warningly.
“I’m an acquaintance of Laken’s. I helped him out once. And you’re one of his vassals?”
The woman pursed her lips.
“I am Lady Rie Valerund, yes. Last of the Valerund house. I owe his Majesty a great debt after he saved me from a Goblin attack on my mansion.”
Ryoka nodded amiably.
“In that case, I’ll let, uh, Emperor Laken explain it to you. If he thinks you should know. As for what I’ll be doing—I have no idea. But as I said, I’ll help however I can. If you’ll let me.”
She saw Rie’s affronted look at the shut-down response. Durene just smiled happily. Prost nodded.
“Of course. And you’re welcome to stay as long as you want. More than welcome. We’ll put you up in a house. We’re already arranging some for the [Witches]—”
“She can stay at my cottage. I have room. And I can sleep on the floor.”
Durene interjected quickly. Ryoka blinked at her. That was unusually friendly. Rie threw up her hands in disgust.
“Fine! By all means, let us include Miss Ryoka in our proceedings. I have to think the [Witches] matter more. Miss Ryoka, please share anything you have to offer.”
She sighed. Then she seemed to remember the Centauress sipping tea and munching on some bread and cheese. Rie stared at Charlay along with Prost and Durene.
“And who are you, Miss?”
The Centauress waved her hand.
“I’m Charlay, known as the Dustrider. City Runner, one of the best. Hi.”
“She’s following me. Uh—she’s not related to Laken.”
Rie had to sit back and massage her temples. She looked helplessly at Prost.
“We need to discuss the ramifications of these—[Witches]. And whether it’s really wise to let them stay unchecked until his Majesty returns? Let alone what Miss Griffin can offer…but Wiskeria is still absent. Talking with those—with her Coven. Should we wait for her? I think it would be wise. But what does it all mean, Mister Prost? I can’t fathom.”
“Me neither. But we’ll do that. For now, let’s just get folks settled. I’m going to go round talking with anyone who wants to know about Elmmet. Reassure them about the [Witches]. Durene, get Miss Ryoka and Miss Charlay settled in your cottage. We’ll meet tonight if Wiskeria’s able. Tomorrow at earliest, if not.”
Durene looked relieved and nodded energetically. Ryoka admired Prost’s decisiveness. Rie was clearly overwhelmed, but the [Steward] was a former [Farmer]. And he had a [Farmer]’s practicality. So she got up, followed Durene as Charlay grabbed some more bread and cheese—
And now they were here. Durene gestured around the cottage, clearly embarrassed by the space. It wasn’t actually that cramped with three people in it; Durene had built it for herself and she needed more room than most. Still, she was sleeping in the kitchen while Ryoka and Charlay occupied the actual bedroom. And there was a tent outside where Wiskeria was sleeping!
“So…what have you been doing since I saw you? A lot’s happened.”
Durene sat on one of her kitchen chairs. Staring at Ryoka. The young woman sat up on the bed.
“Right. A lot’s happened over here. Goblins and a war and…Laken’s gone. He’s coming back. With Goblin prisoners, but he was at Liscor.”
“I heard about that.”
Charlay, laying on the bed, swiveled her head from Ryoka to Durene. The young woman stared at Durene. She didn’t know her that well. And Durene clearly felt it. She looked—awkward.
“Um. Last time we met, I remember being a bit—”
“Don’t worry about it. I was pretty bad myself. A lot’s changed. Do you—want to talk about it?”
“Yes. Uh—why don’t we have a drink? I can make some tea. I have a kettle—move out of the way, Frostwing!”
She shooed the brilliantly blue bird and Ryoka heard a screech. She stared at Frostwing. So did Charlay.
“That’s a big, blue bird.”
“That’s Frostwing. You remember her, right Ryoka?”
“I do. She was a lot…smaller, back then. But I do remember her.”
Ryoka accepted a cup of hot, somewhat weak tea from Durene. She handed it to Charlay, took the second one, and sat down. Durene sat opposite her. There was a murmur of thanks, sipping, silence.
“So about what happened here. Well, we had Goblins—uh, do you know about the mountain raids? Well, what we had—”
“Oh, yeah! And I uh, well, I was running a lot after I left Riverfarm. And uh, I’m still running basically. I work around Reizmelt. Ever heard of it? No? Well, they call me, the uh, Wind Runner—”
The conversation started and stopped. One side talked, the other side listened. Ryoka heard Durene talk about Riverfarm and the battle and watched the half-Troll girl’s face. Durene did the same to her.
It was awkward. They really weren’t friends. And Ryoka, for all her best efforts, couldn’t figure out what to really say to Durene. By the time they were on their third cups of tea and feeling it, they had nothing more to say. Durene stared at Ryoka.
“So Laken sent you. And you really don’t have any plan? He didn’t tell you anything? Maybe there was a clue in what he wrote.”
Ryoka shook her head.
“I don’t think there was. At least—I looked for it, but I think he just wanted me to come here. I have no idea what to do. But it seems like I got here just in time.”
“Right. Well—I’m sure Rie and Mister Prost will want your help. And uh, if you think of anything, let us know! Wiskeria’s going to tell us what her coven’s here for. Tomorrow. I haven’t seen her; she must be talking with them still. I’ll introduce her. She’s a [Witch] and the [General] of Riverfarm’s army, like I said.”
“Got it. I’ll do my best.”
And that was it. Durene nodded, then excused herself to use her outhouse. Charlay and Ryoka exchanged a glance. The Centauress put her cup down.
“That was awkward.”
Charlay peered at Ryoka and shook her head.
“You have no idea what you’re doing here, do you?”
“Great. You Humans are so weird.”
The Centauress snorted. Ryoka couldn’t really argue the point at the moment. She lay back in her sleeping bag and stared up at the ceiling. What a mess. What could she do? Why was Charlay still here? Her mind was whirling. And then Charlay spoke up.
“…Hey, is that a bear in the window or is that just me?”
Ryoka looked up and then recoiled in alarm. Bismarck stared at the two and paused in sticking his tongue towards a basket of food Durene had brought from the village. The two stared at the Mossbear in horror until Durene came back in. She looked at them, spotted Bismarck, and slapped the bear gently before pushing him out.
“Bismarck! That’s our food! Get back to your den! I already fed you! Sorry, that’s Bismarck, you two. He’s Laken’s other pet. Mossbear.”
Charlay and Ryoka stared at each other. Silently, and in unison, they decided to go to bed. Ryoka rolled up and found that her sleeping bag really was the most comfortable thing in existence. She almost immediately began to drift off, but her mind was still racing.
[Witches], a [Lady], a [Farmer] turned into a [Steward]. A Troll-Girl with a giant bear for a pet and a blue bird, and a village. A missing [Emperor].
Ryoka nodded to herself. Yup, that about summed it up. Welcome to Riverfarm. She lay back and closed her eyes. After a moment she realized something else.
Charlay was a loud snorer. So was Durene.
Night 56 – Wiskeria
They didn’t gather in secret. The moons were not gibbous or full in any particularly significant combination. And nor was this a time of ritual, of significance. Well—[Witches] had died, but it was too far away for this coven to make use of their deaths. If they had even that inclination.
So it wasn’t a particularly notable gathering. And yet it was. Oh, it was. Wiskeria could feel it in the air as she stood in the simple home that had been afforded to Miss Califor and Nanette. Eloise and Hedag had their own house, despite it being large enough for all seven in theory. Mavika and Alevica shared another, although Wiskeria was fairly certain Mavika would not be sleeping in the village.
And Belavierr? A house unto herself. Wiskeria wondered if her mother would make much use of it either. She did sleep. But Wiskeria had known her all her life. And Belavierr made Mavika look mundane at times.
Covens drew power from many things. The cycles of the moon. Significance. And yes, death. It should not have been a powerful gathering. But the six [Witches] in the room besides Wiskeria positively reeked of power. Nanette didn’t really count. And she was already in bed since it was late.
They had gathered close to midnight. Wiskeria could feel the hum of magic in the air. And—purpose. It was a mark of their status. Even without a full moon, or two full moons or ritual, this coven could probably perform a working that would put Wiskeria’s old coven, the Marshlands Coven, to shame.
So what was the purpose of this meeting? What did they do? They sat at Eloise’s table and sipped tea. There were also biscuits. As freshly baked as you wanted them. The sight of Mavika perching on a chair, nibbling a biscuit was only matched by Belavierr sitting with a cup of tea and biscuit in hand. It was funny—until you remembered what they could do. Wiskeria didn’t smile.
She had been weeping. Her coven was dead. Her friends were dead. They had been killed. Wiskeria had held Tillica’s hat. The motherly [Witch] who had welcomed Wiskeria into her coven was dead, like the others Wiskeria had shared friendships and rivalries with over eight years. Dead, just like that. But for Mavika and Thallisa. But one thing stopped Wiskeria from curling up completely. And that was the need for vengeance. The need to know.
“They called themselves the Circle of Thorns. A secret name, one we have heard times before.”
Mavika spoke first. She scattered crumbs as she spoke, chewing, eating. Her eyes were dark like the birds she could summon. The others nodded. Only Wiskeria was out of the know.
“The Circle of Thorns. Who are they?”
“An old group. Or young! Depending on how you look at it. They were before my time, but Belavierr and Mavika remember them. A group of nobles. I suppose they style themselves as secretive, but the name’s plenty to remember.”
Hedag leaned on the table. Her expression was grim. Flinty. Wiskeria saw Eloise fill her cup. The oldest-looking [Witch] still smiled in her grandmotherly way, but Wiskeria wasn’t fooled. She wouldn’t want to cross any [Witch] present. Not Califor, flicking dust off her robe that Mavika was scattering, or Alevica, who was surreptitiously adding some whiskey into her cup. They were all senior [Witches] in this coven, by power if not age in Alevica’s case. As for why they had come, it was simple.
“I do not know why Tillica summoned the coven. Perhaps she was forced. Perhaps she erred for neither Thallisa nor I were present to hear the offer. We came too late and repaid blood with blood. But the offer I do know. My flock heard it from those who committed the deed before they were repaid. They called for a curse upon Magnolia Reinhart and her kin. A spell so powerful and so foul that she would die screaming, boiled by her very skin.”
Mavika looked unconcerned by the spell. Wiskeria shuddered.
“No wonder the Marshlands Coven refused. Even if they could pull a spell like that off—against a [Lady]’s protective enchantments? And if they succeeded, then what?”
“It would be war against [Witches] as in times past. But it seems it was war either way. It was a poor offer to make. Regrettable that Mavika wasn’t present.”
Miss Califor’s clipped voice made Wiskeria turn to her. The no-nonsense tone raised Wiskeria’s anger.
“Aren’t you grieving? These [Witches] are dead!”
Her voice broke on the last bit. Califor just stared at Wiskeria reprovingly.
“I have grief to give, Witch Wiskeria. And I will give it as it matters, in my time. But I did not journey three hundred miles with Nanette to wail away! We are here for more business than simply vengeance! What matters is that [Witches] are being targeted. This Circle of Thorns intended your coven to die, had they accepted or not. That is what should concern you.”
Hedag and Eloise nodded as well. Alevica sipped from her flask. She nodded much more casually at Wiskeria. They had met, and Wiskeria knew Alevica did not like to stand on formality. She was probably only doing so because of Mavika, Califor, and Belavierr.
“Essentially, Wiskeria, we’re here because we don’t want more [Witches] to die. You being told is Mavika’s thing. Sorry, but we have bigger issues.”
“Like meeting Laken. Why do you want to meet him? He is an [Emperor], you know.”
Wiskeria felt protective of Laken. He had no idea what he was coming back to. The others nodded. Mavika reached for another biscuit.
“We know. And that authority is his to claim. We care not for it, only what it may offer. All that passes comes again. It matters not what nations rise or fall. Only that [Witches] do not meet their end.”
The word came from Belavierr. And it was the first word she’d spoken in ten hours, since she’d greeted Wiskeria. The others went silent as Belavierr put down her cup and biscuit. Untouched. She looked down at Wiskeria, and her ringed eyes glowed. Wiskeria returned the gaze. It would scare anyone else in this world, but not Wiskeria. She had known that stare since she was a baby. Once, it had been reassuring.
Belavierr did not waste words. She spoke flatly, her face never changing. Her eyes locked on Wiskeria’s.
“That is why we have come. To call on this [Emperor] for sanctuary for all [Witches] on his lands. To inform you, Daughter, of your Coven’s demise. We wish for sanctuary.”
“You mean—for you?”
Hedag laughed gently.
“Not just her. Belavierr means sanctuary and protection, Wiskeria, child. That might apply to me, although I’d be content to roam. No, it just means that if need be, we can flee here. Rally, knowing there’s an army at our backs. It might be a small army, to look at this village!”
“Not just an army, but the protection of his name.”
Eloise swirled the tea in her cup gently. She nodded to Wiskeria, smiling.
“It is a risk, but this [Emperor] may gain more power. And if he needs us, if we strike a deal, it would be the first noble or city to openly ally with our kind in an age, Wiskeria my dear. That’s what brings this coven to you.”
“So you want me to intercede with him. Why all come yourselves, then?”
Wiskeria breathed out. She could have done this herself! But the reproving looks came from all sides this time. Alevica tsked, looking amused. Califor’s voice was sharp.
“You of all [Witches] should understand that a decision this large cannot be made without a coven to witness it! One [Witch]’s word has weight, but we represent the interest of all our covens. Witch Wiskeria, this is not the decision of some of the [Witches] of Izril.”
Wiskeria’s eyes widened.
“Wait—you mean all of them?”
The seven nodded slowly. And Wiskeria felt a chill like the one that Ryoka had felt run up her arms and spine. All the [Witches] of Izril? Then that meant they were serious. That meant they were predicting Laken would gain power. And authority. And land. And—
“How dangerous is the Circle of Thorns?”
All eyes turned to Mavika and Belavierr. Mavika shrugged, hunched.
“I remember them once. Two generations hence, when they slew members of the Five Families. Old blood, old feuds spilling onto the earth. A time of shadows and death.”
She looked at Belavierr. Wiskeria’s mother was still staring at Wiskeria. Slowly, she turned her head to Mavika’s. And nodded.
“I remember them thrice. They come again and again. And twice, they culled more than their enemies. [Witches] died. War came to Izril from north and south.”
The coven waited. Belavierr paused. She reached down, picked up the tea cup and sipped from it. Then she began eating the biscuit. Eloise and Hedag traded a look. Alevica looked about to laugh, then caught Mavika’s eye and went still. Califor exhaled through her nose and pointedly looked at Wiskeria. The young [Witch] sighed. This was all so familiar, even as dire as it sounded.
“Mother, how bad was the war? How many [Witches] died?”
Belavierr paused. As Wiskeria understood it, she was surprised by the question. If she could be surprised, really. She didn’t…understand things like other people did. She looked up and replied calmly.
“Three hundred and twelve. The war lasted thirty four years.”
And then there was silence. Belavierr could be vague. But sometimes you asked and wished she didn’t answer. Eloise murmured, counting.
“A war between north and south. It must have been—the Ironbreaker conflict? Zelkyr’s War? Or after it—the Gloaning Foothills invasion? No, that was when Terandria invaded. Too early.”
Miss Califor set down her tea cup and the sound silenced the rest. She spoke crisply, and her head swiveled to the room in which her apprentice, Nanette, slept. Wiskeria had known Miss Califor for as long as Mavika. She had never known her to have an apprentice that followed her. Usually Califor went to each person she wanted to straighten out. This was new. But the clear-cut decisiveness in the woman’s voice reassured Wiskeria.
“We may research which war Witch Belavierr mentioned later. It only matters that the Circle of Thorns may endanger [Witches] again. We must not die. We are fewer than we were in the past. And our magic is weaker.”
“The old ways pass.”
Hedag murmured. She sighed and the coven sighed too. Wiskeria was familiar with this as well. She saw Alevica rolling her eyes. Mavika noticed that.
“You have something to say, Witch Alevica?”
“Not me, Mavika. Certainly not about the old ways passing, or less rituals or spells being harder to perform. I’m all for dancing around a pot and making a brew.”
Alevica’s impudent tone made Califor scowl and Eloise sigh. Hedag laughed loud enough to wake Nanette. Mavika just stared until Alevica stopped grinning.
“Our magic fades. The Gnolls call this the Waning World. Do you seek to make light of it, Alevica? In times past, [Witches] summoned beings far greater than your skeletons to make good or ill. Our covens stretched from north to south, but those times do not last. Now, [Witches] may breathe our last. Do you make light of it, Witch Alevica?”
She snapped and in her room, Wiskeria heard Nanette gasp and hide behind the door she was peeking out of. The air around the coven constricted and Wiskeria felt the air leave her lungs. It was suddenly stifling. Choking—as if feathers were crammed down her throat!
Alevica felt it too. The [Witch] raised a hand—and then glared at Mavika. She didn’t back down. And furious sparks raced down her arms, crackling towards Mavika. But they never reached the older [Witch]. In her room, Nanette choked like Wiskeria.
The other [Witches] at the table reacted to the fight in the same moments. Hedag leaned back, grimacing. And she just breathed, in, out, in, out, slowly. Eloise did likewise, grimacing, but doing it with far less effort.
Belavierr didn’t even seem to notice. She was staring at Wiskeria. Only when she noticed her daughter’s expression did she glance sideways. Then her fingers twisted. She grasped something and a bit of thread—Wiskeria felt the pressure on her disappear at once.
And Califor? She was glaring between Alevica and Mavika, put out by the quarrel. Until she looked up and heard her apprentice choking. Then her nostrils flared and her eyes went wide with fury. She raised her hand and slapped it down on the table.
The room shook. The gathering power slammed Alevica back against the wall she was leaning against and Mavika rocked backwards on her chair. At once, the air resumed its normal quality. The two [Witches] stared at Califor. Alevica had a nosebleed from her left nostril. Mavika just looked annoyed.
“Enough. Nanette, go back to sleep.”
The [Witch] turned and Nanette squeaked and fled to her bed at once. Wiskeria saw Califor’s lips move and sensed the sleeping spell. Then Califor looked at Alevica and Mavika. They were angry, but their fury did not match her own. Silently, the two considered Califor and bowed their heads. Eloise put down her cup and nodded.
“I think we are done for now. It is enough that we’ve gathered. And we are not decided yet. We must see if Riverfarm suits us. I suggest we all practice our crafts as we may, take in the strength of this demesne. I sense this [Emperor]’s power. Especially in these totems I passed. But whether it is for [Witches] or not remains to be seen. But we shall discuss it later. For now, let us sleep. Unless anyone objects?”
No one did. Wiskeria exhaled slowly, relieved. Eloise was the voice of reason you needed in times like this. Every coven had to have someone like that or risk fights and feuds. Only—Wiskeria had seen Mavika angry and seen [Witches] do battle, sometimes more dramatically, but she’d never seen a tiff that intense. And it had been a minor squabble; Mavika was capable of much more, but Alevica was at least partly her match.
The coven rose, nodding. Hedag sighed as she stood, the first to leave. She reached out and held Wiskeria’s shoulder.
“We do bother you, Wiskeria. I apologize for that, but I hope you let us practice our craft on your land.”
The others paused and looked at her. Wiskeria shrugged, uncomfortably. What else could she say?
“Of course. So long as you obey Prost’s rules.”
The others nodded, to lesser or greater satisfaction. They walked out, one by one. Califor went to check on Nanette and Wiskeria realized they were leaving her alone with Belavierr. The [Witch] was still sitting, not having moved. And the others in the coven had to know of their relationship, even if some, like Hedag and Eloise, Wiskeria had never met before. But they would know Belavierr and thus Wiskeria. However [Witches], being who they were, wouldn’t meddle. This wasn’t something for a coven. It was…personal.
The two sat alone for a while after the others had left. Wiskeria knew Califor wasn’t listening—but she was probably expecting to sleep sometime tonight. Which meant Wiskeria had to be the first to talk. Belavierr might sit for hours without speaking, just watching Wiskeria over the table. But to her surprise, as she was trying to break the silence, Belavierr spoke.
The two stared at each other. Belavierr nodded
“…You appear to be well.”
Wiskeria sighed. That was her mother.
“I am well. Why are you here, Mother?”
“Sanctuary. I have told you.”
“I know. But why are you here, Mother? I told you I didn’t want to talk to you again.”
Belavierr paused. She looked at Wiskeria, unblinking.
“I care for [Witches]. And for your fate.”
Wiskeria just folded her arms in disgust. She knew Belavierr remembered their last conversation. Her mother paused again.
“You have continued practicing your craft? You should learn while the coven remains here. From Califor. Califor is a better teacher than I.”
Her daughter’s brow wrinkled in disgust.
“Learn from—! You haven’t changed! Not one bit! I’m fine, Mother! I might not be a [Witch] as powerful as you, but I don’t need to be!”
Silence. Belavierr looked Wiskeria up and down.
“Yes, I suppose? And no. You are a [Witch], Wiskeria. But you have no passion to add to your craft.”
“Well, I have you to thank for that. You made me the [Witch] I am.”
Wiskeria tipped her hat and gave Belavierr her most insulting smile. She hoped it would produce something, but the cutting words didn’t seem to affect her Mother in the slightest. They never did. Belavierr frowned.
“I would like you to be a better [Witch]. You still have much to learn. If not from Califor, then Mavika. She is your senior [Witch] and part of your coven.”
“I’m a [General] now. What do you think of that?”
“You are a [Witch].”
And that was that. The two sat in silence, one glaring, the other just staring. Wiskeria balled her hands into fists.
“I’m warning you, Mother. The coven can stay. That’s fine. I know what they’re like. And I suppose since all [Witches] might die on this continent, you can stay too. But this is my land. Don’t do—anything in this village. I like it here. Don’t be—can you not—”
She trailed off, frustrated. And Belavierr just shook her head. As Wiskeria knew she would.
“I am what I am, Daughter. I cannot change that.”
Wiskeria knew that too. Bitterly, the daughter stared at the mother. And the mother paused and looked at her daughter. At last, she seemed to recall something.
“Do you want anything? Three years have passed since we last met. Do you have a wish? I will grant it if it is within my power.”
“Nothing from you, Mother. Nothing from you.”
And that was it. Belavierr nodded and stood up.
“Then I bid you good night, Witch Wiskeria. I ask you speak well of us to this [Emperor], for we bear the fate of all [Witches] on Izril.”
She tipped her hat and walked out of the house. Wiskeria stayed a moment longer. She was grateful that Miss Califor tactfully remained in Nanette’s room for a few minutes so Wiskeria could wipe away her tears.
Day 57 – Durene
“They’re the best [Witches] on the continent. Maybe the world.”
That was how Wiskeria explained it. She sat in Lady Rie’s house, with Prost, Ryoka, Charlay, Rie, and Durene. Technically, Charlay didn’t have to be here, but the Centauress seemed delighted to be included in the conversation.
As Wiskeria stood in front of the table, she looked from Prost to Rie to Durene to Ryoka. Her eyes lingered on the City Runner longest, but she had accepted the explanation about Ryoka very quickly. It was probably the least of the surprises she had experienced of late.
There was a moment of silence as everyone digested Wiskeria’s statement. Then Prost carefully raised a hand.
“By best, Wiskeria, do you mean…”
“I mean, they are the best, the highest-leveled, the most dangerous, or just the best, Mister Prost. And I do mean that. Each one is a legend. They’re all legends. Except Nanette. She’s Miss Califor’s student. Which means she’ll probably be the next Califor. So a legend-in-training since that’s never happened that I can remember.”
Wiskeria sighed as she adjusted her hat. Durene stared at her. The best? The highest-leveled in their class? It was hard to believe. Durene had met…well, she’d heard of some high-level [Farmers], but they were only good locally. The best in the world…
“And they came because of this Circle of Thorns. Because of the…threat to [Witches].”
Rie’s eyes fixed on Wiskeria. The [Witch] nodded, fiddling with her spectacles.
“Among other things. But it’s the pact with Laken that concerns them. They think he has potential. I think they’re united in that, although they might want other things. I’m sure Mavika does. She might want…well, she wants something other than what Califor wants, I’m certain of that.”
That made no sense to Durene and she was opening her mouth to say so. But then Ryoka leaned in. The young woman had strange skin and features, and she was quite tall—well, for a woman. Durene towered over her still, but she envied Ryoka’s grace. She’d envied a lot of things about her when they first met, come to that. Like her connection with Laken.
They came from another world. Laken had told her. But he had confessed that he didn’t know Ryoka herself that well. Still, she had come when he asked. So Durene listened as Wiskeria turned to face Ryoka.
“Witch Wiskeria, right?”
“You can call me Wiskeria. Witch Wiskeria is only for formality. You should address Califor and Mavika like that. The rest won’t care as much.”
Ryoka nodded, and Durene saw her processing that as her eyes flickered. She looked at Wiskeria thoughtfully.
“Can you explain what [Witches] are in general, Wiskeria? As well as what each of the [Witches] in your coven does? I think that would help us all.”
“Of course. Sorry, I forget it’s not common knowledge. [Witches] are…”
Wiskeria sighed and took off her hat. She inspected it, then put it back on.
“[Witches] are loners. By and large. You know all the basics, I’m sure. We cast spells, we can have familiars—pets—and we can do magic other than [Mage] spells. Magic brews, summonings, séances; our abilities are far more varied than your average [Mage]. But…weaker. Or as Miss Califor would put it, different. Which means weaker in the sense that we can’t throw [Fireballs]. At least, most of us can’t. Alevica probably can.”
Ryoka and Charlay nodded at that. The Centauress mouthed at Durene. I’ve seen it. Wiskeria went on.
“Generally, a [Witch] just…is a [Witch]. She does her business, pursues her passion—which we call her craft—and meets her coven a few times a month at most to exchange news, warnings, trade, and so on. Some of us are even adventurers, like I was. Some can live in towns—it’s rare that any go to cities like Alevica, but it can happen. There’s no rules that say we can’t do much of anything. But there are nuances, I suppose.”
Ryoka sat forwards, the most interested. Wiskeria frowned.
“Well—[Witches] derive a lot of power from different magic. Uh—grudges. Death. Or life! We need passion for what we do. That’s how we become [Witches]—I don’t think I can explain all of it now…but it means we can be different from each other. Very different.”
Uncomfortably, she shifted her hat again.
“Let me put it like this. If you want to break it down to the most basic element—there are good witches and bad ones. Or maybe it’s better to think of them as ‘selfish’ or ‘generous’.”
Durene saw Ryoka’s eyes narrow. But Durene remembered Chimmy asking Wiskeria if she was a good [Witch] or a bad one. Wiskeria clearly remembered the same thing, because she looked at Durene. Rie coughed delicately.
“And ah, which would you be, Miss Wiskeria?”
“I suppose I’m a good [Witch] if you want to break it down. What I mean by that is—look, some [Witches] follow rules. They try to help people as much as themselves. That ties into their craft and passion. Other [Witches] don’t. They might help people, but they’ll sometimes do as much harm as good.”
“So, which are which.”
Prost had a resigned look like he knew what was coming. Wiskeria’s pause this time was telling. She cleared her throat a few times.
“If you want to be simple about it, then the ‘good’ [Witches] are Hedag and Eloise. And Nanette, but she’s young. The ‘bad’ ones, or at least, the selfish ones are Mavika and Alevica and Belavierr.”
Durene looked around. No one was surprised by that, although Prost and Rie were grimacing. Charlay nodded several times when she heard Alevica’s name.
“And Miss Califor?”
“In between. Mostly good, but you hear stories sometimes. She helps those who help themselves. And she has no patience for fools. She’s something of a terror even among other [Witches], actually. She’ll come around if she thinks you’re not behaving properly and sort you out.”
“Ah. So she’s a teacher? A mentor to other [Witches]? What do each of the [Witches] do?”
Wiskeria looked at Ryoka. The two appraised each other and Wiskeria shrugged.
“You’ve probably guessed some of it. Califor’s good at everything she does. Illusions to charms to basic magic and non-magical things—she’s a teacher and she sorts problems out. Mavika is her exact opposite. She hates people, but she has control over all kinds of animals. Crows primarily, but she can control rats and snakes too. And I think she can turn into a bird.”
“She can what?”
Prost and Rie shot up in their seats. So did Durene. The half-Troll girl gaped around. Charlay and Ryoka didn’t look surprised. The Centauress shrugged.
“Like a Lizardfolk I guess.”
“Not exactly. She can turn back.”
Ryoka nodded. She wasn’t shocked at all and Wiskeria and Durene saw that.
“Oh yes. But she’s a traditionalist. Remember what she said about ill for ill? She doesn’t attack people. But uh, don’t insult her. Hedag’s actually more likely to hit you. Her magic’s not that strong, but she’s a law unto herself in villages.”
“I know of her. Hedag’s a family name, isn’t it?”
Wiskeria looked surprised.
“That’s right. She comes from a line of [Executioners]. Family trade. Her [Witch] side ties into that. Her passion is her craft.”
“Being the law.”
Prost didn’t elaborate. Wiskeria nodded.
“Her magic’s probably the weakest of all the [Witches], but she has Skills to make up for that. Eloise on the other hand is very skillful in herbal magics and…tea. She lives in one village and generally just helps people out.”
Another hand from Ryoka.
“You say that, but does she have any uh, secrets? Like, I’m sure I shouldn’t cross Mavika or Alevica. I do know about her. The Witch Runner. She can fly and use necromancy, right?”
“Among other things. She’s a genius at fighting. Not so much traditional magic, but her being able to fly means she’s one of the best [Witches]. I don’t know of any of the others in the coven who fly with a broom either. Mavika definitely can, but most would prefer to walk.”
“Imagine that Hedag riding a broom.”
Charlay laughed. Durene snorted with amusement. Wiskeria did not. Neither did Ryoka.
“So don’t cross Alevica and Mavika. What about the others? You said Eloise is a ‘good’ witch. But does she have a…secret? Anything that we should know about?”
Durene’s skin crawled. That was right. Now that Ryoka mentioned it, compared to the others, Eloise stood out. Califor could be dangerous, Hedag had an axe and killed people for all she smiled—what was Eloise’ secret?
“Her secret? She doesn’t have one. She’s just nice. We’re not all dangerous, you know.”
Wiskeria gave Ryoka a blank look. The City Runner paused.
“Anyways, that’s all of them. Except Belavierr.”
Rie looked at Wiskeria. The [Witch]’s expression froze. She tugged her hat lower, hiding her eyes.
“Yes. She is. I haven’t seen her in three years.”
“What about her? She’s a…bad witch?”
“Oh yes. The very worst in that respect. She’s not dangerous like Mavika or Alevica. It’s hard to cross her. But she’s dangerous.”
“What does she do?”
The room waited. Wiskeria looked up. She shrugged at their blank faces.
“She stitches things. She’s a [Stitch Witch]. Don’t ever make a deal with her if I’m not there. Okay?”
She looked around. And her gaze was deadly serious. Durene looked about uncertainly as well. She saw Ryoka meet Wiskeria’s eyes, Charlay’s uncertain grin, and Rie looking at her. The [Lady] pursed her lips, then glanced at Ryoka and nodded.
“In that case, I think we had better see what these [Witches] are doing. Durene, why don’t you accompany Miss Ryoka?”
The half-Troll girl nodded.
Day 57 – Ryoka
It was an odd experience, starting her day in Riverfarm. Not bad—just odd. Ryoka had abandoned being a City Runner for a second to be, well, a guest. She’d woken up at dawn with Charlay. They were used to an earlier schedule, so they’d tiptoed—well, Ryoka had tiptoed—around Durene and made breakfast. Some odd meat with eggs, corn, and potatoes had been in the bag.
Then when the half-Troll girl had woken up and eaten as well, they’d headed down to the village. Then they’d met first thing to hear Wiskeria’s report on what her coven wanted and now they were just walking around Riverfarm. Charlay stretched in the morning air, yawning.
“That was some great sleep I had! And you don’t cook half bad, Ryoka! I think you underdid the meat, though.”
“You’re the one who wanted to throw it in the pan.”
“Hey! I covered you from that evil bird while we made it!”
Durene chuckled. The half-Troll girl walked along the two, listening to their banter. Ryoka felt somewhat easier around Durene after a night, although it was nothing like the strange and friendly bickering she had with Charlay.
“Sorry about that. It’s Frostwing. She can be evil.”
“She’s very beautiful. But also vicious. So this is Riverfarm?”
Ryoka stared around the streets and the people bustling about. It was amazing. Durene nodded proudly.
“That’s right. We built all this since you last came by, Ryoka! And we’re working on new houses every day!”
“It’s incredible progress. When I was here last, the village was still snowed in. From the avalanche…sorry.”
Durene’s face had clouded over. The half-Troll girl shook her head and smiled brightly.
“It’s fine. It feels like ages ago, really.”
It did. Ryoka nodded, remembering those times. Frost Faeries. Magic and snow and dead things around a fire. And it would be summer, autumn, and then winter before they arrived. The spring wasn’t even over! She frowned up at the sky. Were…seasons longer in this world?
“At least it’s a nice day. Very bright. Too bright. Hey, is there anywhere to drink? I need water.”
Charlay grumbled as she clip-clopped along. Many people were stopping to stare at a Centaur in their midst. Durene looked almost pleased to not be the center of attention.
“Of course! This is Riverfarm after all. You can see the river that way! And beyond it are the fields—hey, wait!”
Charlay took off excitedly. Durene jogged after her, but she couldn’t have caught Charlay in a thousand years. She turned back to Ryoka,
“She’s really fast!”
“And excitable. Sorry for foisting her on you.”
Durene hesitated at the word ‘foist’. Then she nodded, smiling. She looked around, and then edged closer. Ryoka resisted the urge to hop back; she had bare feet and Durene’s feet could easily smash one of hers.
“Um, Ryoka, I know Rie and Prost wanted me to follow you. But if you have any ideas, you know, from yours and Laken’s world—”
Ryoka winced. Damn, so Durene had remembered. She hissed back up at her.
“Don’t talk about that, please. Anyone could be listening.”
Especially a [Witch]. Ryoka wasn’t sure if they could be trusted—no, she was pretty sure at least one of them spelled trouble for Riverfarm. This entire scenario smelled fishy to her. A Circle of Thorns? This traitor who’d manipulated Laken into attacking the Goblins? Durene had told Ryoka about that last night and Ryoka was already trying to figure out who it was. It had to be—
“Hey you two! What’s the hold up?”
Charlay came galloping back, wiping water from her mouth. She glared at Ryoka and Durene and then grabbed at her midriff.
“Ooh! My stomach! I think I’ve got colic! I shouldn’t have drank that water so quickly!”
“Don’t joke about that.”
Ryoka sighed at Charlay. The Centauress laughed. Durene blinked.
“You mean, like horses? Can a Centauress get that?”
“Hey! Anyone can get colic! Don’t be racist! Speciesist!”
Charlay glared at Durene. Abashed, the half-Troll girl turned red. Ryoka glared and kicked Charlay gently on one leg. The Centauress raised one of hers and Ryoka backed up. She hesitated and saw Durene’s face.
“I didn’t mean you’re super-racist. It’s fine! It’s fine! Besides, we’re both non-Human, right? Humans are the really racist ones. We should be pals!”
She trotted over and slapped Durene on the shoulder. Then she squinted at Durene.
“I didn’t ask, but you’re—are you a Troll? I’ve seen some as mercenaries on Baleros. You know, in monstrous regiments?”
Durene’s head shot up. She stared at Charlay, open-mouthed. Ryoka coughed.
“What? Oh, am I being ‘insensitive’ again, Ryoka? Wait, am I?”
Charlay rolled her eyes and then glanced anxiously back at Durene. The girl shook her head.
“Oh. Hey! I haven’t seen any of those—I mean, people like you. But that’s cool. Half-Troll. Half-Troll. Does that mean a Troll and—”
“You say you knew Trolls in Baleros, Charlay?”
Ryoka interrupted quickly. The Centauress nodded casually.
“Yup. Monster regiments. They don’t level and a lot of them are really stup—I mean, they don’t level up, but sometimes tribes ally with mercenary companies or enlist. It’s rare and Goblins are banned from that kind of thing, but it used to happen. Of course, usually we go to war with them. Hey, do you know Fleethoof? She’s a famous Centauress and she fought a bunch of Ogres and nasty Cyclopes and um…”
She stared at Durene. The girl stared back. Charlay looked around and Ryoka massaged her eyes. The Centauress turned around.
“Hey! Let’s look at those fields, huh?”
She took off. Ryoka glared at her galloping figure as she raced away and turned to Durene.
“Sorry. Charlay’s insensitive.”
“It’s fine. I didn’t know Trolls could live anywhere with people in peace. I thought they just attacked everything on sight.”
Durene looked wistfully after Charlay. Ryoka cleared her throat.
“So. Uh—Riverfarm. I see its busy building. Lots of new people. What do you do all day?”
The half-Troll girl started. She kept walking with Ryoka and shrugged.
“Me? I just woke up a little bit ago. I help out, but ever since the army was pretty much disbanded…I don’t know. I wish I did. I wish Laken were here.”
Ryoka nodded absently.
“Aren’t you a [Paladin], though? Laken said he made you into one.”
Ryoka hesitated and eyed Durene.
“So…don’t you have an urge to do [Paladin] things? Go on crusades? Fight evil?”
“No? Where would I find any? And I’m not a [Knight]!”
Durene laughed at the idea. Ryoka hesitated.
She broke off as they reached the river and fields. Ryoka blinked, and then stared. Durene pointed proudly at the farmland that stretched far as Ryoka could see across the other bank.
“You see? We’re all combining our Skills on the other side. The [Farmers], I mean. We’re growing as fast as we can since there are so many people to feed; we’ve harvested three times already from some parts! And Prost wants this to be twice as big when we’re done! We’re going to grow potatoes, corn, carrots—all kinds of stuff!”
Ryoka stared across the farmland. It was a substantial amount of work, and that would be if Riverfarm’s folk had access to tractors and combine harvesters! But they’d done this themselves. She saw hundreds, no, over a hundred men and women working the fields, and more in the distance, clearing land for use. Durene nodded proudly.
“It’s great. The only trouble is pests.”
“Pests? What’s this about pests?”
Charlay was back. She excitedly waved the two over to a small bridge someone had built over part of the river. Ryoka had to pause to admire it too; it wasn’t much more than a sloping bridge, but the fact that someone had engineered it—complete with a keystone construction, only with wood blocks—told her that there was some serious talent here. The fields and new houses—Ryoka decided that Riverfarm might be poor, but it had serious talent that could be used. Durene strode over to the other side and pointed at some wheat, already ready to harvest.
“It’s rats. And birds. And other animals. It happens with most fields, but even scarecrows don’t keep them away with this much food. We have night patrols, but without Laken, it’s hard to handle stuff like rats.”
“Well, because we keep growing stuff. And the rats make these burrows and only come out at night mostly—Laken could find them the instant they arrived, but we have to keep searching!”
Durene pounded a fist into her hand, looking frustrated. It was a [Farmer]’s dilemma. Ryoka nodded absently. Charlay did too.
“That sounds awful. I hate rats. But this wheat looks nice. Let me try some! And there’s a lot of lovely grass around here!”
So saying, she reached down and plucked a stalk of wheat and began to nibble at it. Ryoka and Durene stared at Charlay. The City Runner frowned.
“Do you eat grass, Charlay?”
The Centauress jumped and blushed.
“No! I mean, not unless I was really hungry. Grass is too hard, let alone hay. There’s some nice grasses that you can get in Baleros, though. Very soft. Why? Hey! Are you being racist again?”
“Not me. But why don’t you stop eating the wheat? That’s Riverfarm’s food.”
“Aw, but it tastes good. And it’s one stalk. You’ve got tons, right, Durene?”
The Centauress grabbed another. Durene hesitated. But someone else ran up, shouting in outrage.
“Hey! That’s our crop! Begone, you—uh—”
Mister Ram paused as he stared at Charlay. She pranced away, looking offended.
“I just wanted a bit. You’ve got tons!”
“That’s our crop! And we’ve having enough troubles keeping birds and rodents away as it is. Not to mention the damned bugs! Durene, we’ve got grasshoppers now. Northeastern fields. Can you believe it?”
Durene groaned. Ryoka made a face. Bugs, rodents, and birds. She didn’t envy Riverfarm’s [Farmers] their job. The half-Troll girl grimaced.
“We have to get rid of them fast! Otherwise they’ll eat half the fields! Let me lend a hand and I’ll tell Prost we need everyone to get over and help get rid of them. Ryoka, is there some way we can get rid of grasshoppers quick?”
She looked expectantly at Ryoka. The City Runner froze. Ram blinked, and then swung around to her.
“What? Me? I have no idea. Unless—a pesticide? Water and soap, maybe? I really don’t know.”
Ryoka backed up a bit. She had a lot of useless knowledge like how to make a bomb (purely for anarchistic reasons of a rebellious child), but she’d never looked into stuff like pesticides. But she could try. Maybe this was what Laken meant. Durene brightened at the word.
“Pesti-what? You mean, like an [Alchemist] draught? I heard some sell stuff to [Farmers].”
“That’s right! Are you an [Alchemist], Miss? No. Wait. You’re that City Runner people were talking about, right? Well, maybe we can send for some potions! But the cost—”
Ram looked excited and then worried. Ryoka bit her lip, thinking hard. She could experiment, but she didn’t actually know if soap and water would kill most insects. It probably didn’t have much staying power. And rats? Birds? She was hesitating, wishing she hadn’t blurted that out without time to think when there was a sound.
Flapping. The skies darkened and Ryoka heard a cawing of dozens, no, hundreds of birds. Ram looked up and swore.
“Fecking wormrot. What is that?”
That was a murder of crows. And Mavika. She walked across the river towards the fields as the [Farmers] put down their tools and turned. Above her head swirled a mass of crows, driving off the other birds in the area, their voices shrill. Silently, the [Witch] approached Ram, Durene, and Ryoka. Charlay had decided she wanted to inspect the corn.
“Farmer, farmers, gather around and give me your ears. For I have a bargain for all to hear.”
It sounded like a spell, but from Mavika’s mouth and by the smile on her lips, it was mockery. Ram glared as more [Farmers] approached, looking wary and holding hoes or scythes not quite as weapons. Ryoka, for her part, had seen Birds by Alfred Hitchcock and had decided that if things went south, she was going to jump in the water and hold her breath.
“What do you want? Mister Prost told you not to interfere with us, didn’t he? If those things land in our fields and try to eat our produce, he’ll sort you out!”
Ram shook a fist at Mavika. The [Witch] regarded him with black eyes, and then turned. Prost was striding towards them at speed.
“What’s this about? Witch Mavika?”
“I’ve come to offer my craft. And strike a deal. That was the terms you gave, [Steward] of this land. I’ve yet to make my offer. Refuse it or let it stand. But my offer must be made before it can be rejected. Or is it offense you want to give?”
The [Witch] peered around, her eyes flicking from face to face. And Ryoka saw her smile with yellowed teeth as the crows jeered. But—she didn’t shudder with revulsion as many of the other people did. She looked at Durene. And then at Mavika. And what Ryoka felt was…a memory.
She looked at Mavika and saw pride. Pride, and contempt. She was daring Prost and the [Farmers]. Expecting them to react with insults. She reminded Ryoka of the fae. And Ryoka, looking at Prost, saw the man was about to snap back. And that would be a mistake, because Mavika was the kind of person who didn’t deescalate in front of threats.
So Ryoka stepped in front of Prost. She caught his eye and he paused. Silently, Ryoka met his gaze. Then she turned to Mavika and bowed. The [Witch] hadn’t expected that. Nor did she expect the smile Ryoka gave her. The City Runner answered her, pitching her voice to be heard by the [Farmers] and crows alike.
“Witch Mavika, I’ll speak for the [Farmers] and those gathered here. You’ve come to offer a deal fairly and for that we’ll hear you out. We can’t promise a deal will be struck. But a bargain made in faith should be answered with faith. What does the Marshland’s [Witch] offer Riverfarm?”
It wasn’t as poetic as Ryoka would have liked. But it was simple and to the point. And as she said it, Ryoka bowed slightly. She looked up and saw Mavika regarding her. The [Witch] seemed to be looking for sarcasm or mockery in Ryoka’s voice or posture. But there was none. Somewhat mollified, she beckoned.
And the murder of ravens came down and landed. In the wheat, on the ground—hundreds of birds. The [Farmers] backed up uneasily, but the birds just stood there, flapping a wing, cawing, but silent. And they all looked at Ryoka and Prost. The City Runner wavered. Okay. That was more creepy than she would have liked. But Mavika grinned then.
“Respect for a [Witch] is rare indeed. So I will make my offer plain and fair, City Runner. Give my flock a field of food. A hundred paces by a hundred paces from there to there. Of your best corn, freshly grown. And for one week, my crows will call Riverfarm their home.”
She pointed to a patch of corn with the ripest and biggest corn, almost as nice as Farmer Lupp’s crop. Ryoka looked around as the [Farmers] began to protest. Ram looked outraged.
“Give our corn? But that’s our best crop! And for what—”
“Ram. Shut up.”
Prost elbowed the man. Ryoka looked at Mavika. She was grinning again.
“By ‘call it their home’, what do you mean, Witch Mavika? It sounds like the [Farmers] would be giving away their food for nothing.”
The [Witch]’s eyes glinted.
“Not for nothing, wind’s child. For not a single blade or seed will my flock eat. And instead this bargain shall they meet: every rodent buried in your fields they’ll kill. And no bird shall feast from your fields at will. My flock will devour the insects who plague your fields. For but a portion of your yields.”
She really liked to rhyme. But everyone who heard her understood what she meant. Ram looked up.
“Both birds and rodents? The damn grasshoppers too?”
“If she could do that—but for our fresh corn? How do we know the crow’s won’t eat more?”
A female [Farmer] protested. Ryoka saw Mavika’s glare and turned hurriedly.
“Mister Prost, I don’t think Mavika would allow her crows to eat more than what was offered. They’ll probably have enough with all the pests. That’s the deal she offered; I don’t know how fair it is.”
“A hundred paces by a hundred paces. And that’s good corn. Enough to feed a lot of mouths. Or one flock. We need to think about it. Give us a second?”
Prost grimaced as he considered it. He stepped back as Ryoka nodded and Ram and a few senior [Farmers] huddled around him. Ryoka watched as they discussed, clearly doing a [Farmer]’s calculations and glancing at Mavika. Wondering if they could trust her, no doubt.
Ryoka didn’t worry about that. Rather, she kept her eyes on Mavika because she didn’t really want to turn her back on all those staring crows. Or the [Witch] herself. Mavika seemed content to wait with all eyes on her. She had the kind of poise Ryoka dreamed of. The Asian girl did not. After a second or two of desperate smiling, Ryoka cleared her throat. Several crows near her flapped their wings.
“Um. I’m—Ryoka. Ryoka Griffin, Witch Mavika. I’m honored to meet—”
“I know who you are, wind’s child. Belavierr pointed you out to me.”
“She did? I mean—did she say—I’m delighted to—”
Mavika cut Ryoka off.
“It matters not. I am not here to be friends with you, wind’s child. Nor these [Farmers]. Look for Eloise if you seek that. Only seek me if you have something to offer and something to take. Now step aside. Now I will see if the path that brought me here was a one that was worth the effort to take.”
She gestured and Ryoka saw Prost approaching her with Ram and two [Farmers] at his back. The [Steward] looked determined.
“Witch Mavika. If you agree your flock will take not one plant more than that section there—we’ll agree to your terms. One week of keeping our fields clear. Is it agreed?”
“You swear to leave my flock safe in the skies? No [Hunter] will shoot arrows at them or traps bring them down? If one crow dies, I claim the forfeit of our deal and three times as many fields our prize.”
Mavika pointed at her flock. There was another mutter, but Prost silenced it with a look.
“Spread the word. You know it’s a good deal. We have an infestation in our fields. How much wheat and crops do you think we’d lose? I say it’s a deal, Witch Mavika. Do we shake on it or sign—?”
He jumped backwards as the murder of crows took off into the sky. Mavika threw back her head and laughed.
“A word is good enough until broken! Let my flock work, Steward Prost! And you, wind’s child, play no games with the wind! Now, ravens of Mavika’s flock, fly!”
And they did. The crows took into the wing, cawing, and dove into the fields. Ryoka saw the [Farmers] exclaim in horror as they aimed straight at one wheat field, but the crows weren’t aiming at the wheat. True to Mavika’s claim, they avoided the plants and began tearing at the ground, at tiny shapes. Ryoka saw a flurry of movement and saw hundreds of grasshoppers shoot up, fleeing the crows. But the birds were already after them, landing, tearing up the soil to eat the bugs as they hid.
Durene exclaimed as she and the other [Farmers] watched the crows flying about. They were efficient! And coordinated; the bugs fled at random, but the crows boxed them in. And that was only a portion of the flock. Some took to the air, circling, jeering at other birds. Some landed on the corn they’d been given, pecking already and fighting with their brethren. But the last group circled around Mavika. She had walked into one field of potatoes and was studying it.
“You say there are rodents in the ground? Rats and moles and mice or larger things?”
Her voice was almost conversational. Businesslike as she talked to Prost. He nodded and Ram hurried over.
“In this field and a few more. At least, we think it’s them. We’ve raked the spots and brought in dogs, but they keep coming—”
He paused as a bird landed and cawed at Mavika. The [Witch] seemed to listen to it and nodded.
“Can you find them? We could turn up the fields if your crows work like terriers. Even our dogs are stymied by so many fresh burrows…”
Prost’s question was answered by a shake of Mavika’s head. She smiled again and pointed up.
“My flock have the [Eyes of Many]. They will find whatever hides. But keep back and let them work. It will not be long; they have hunted far larger than rats in times far past and gone.”
And sure enough, no sooner had she spoken then the group of crows circling overhead was broken up by another bird. Ryoka squinted up and saw a different black shape among the crows. A solitary raven, far larger than the rest. The crows made way warily as the raven landed on a patch of dirt. And then shrieked.
“What was that?”
Mavika looked around. Ryoka coughed.
The raven was digging at the dirt with its claws. It was large, even for a raven. And it’s efforts were rewarded in less than a minute. There was a flurry and then something burst from the ground. A huge rat, nearly four feet long erupted from the ground. The [Farmers] roared and the raven took off as the rat lunged at it.
“Dead gods, it’s Colony Rats! That’s a mother if I saw one! We’ve got to kill it—”
Ram rushed forwards with a hoe, but Mavika’s glare stopped him. The [Witch] pointed as the rat chased after the raven. It was biting, snapping, and the raven was seemingly outmatched on the ground. The [Witch] pointed her fingers at the raven.
“Sephraic. [Ancient Form].”
She snapped her fingers. And the raven disappeared behind a stand of corn as the rat-mother pursued it. Ryoka heard a shriek, and then a rat’s scream. It came back out, fur bloody and torn. And a bird from hell pursued it.
There was no biological history for a raven like this in Ryoka and Laken’s world. But perhaps, in the lost world of this one, there had been. A time when ravens needed to be dangerous. Deadly. How else could you explain the raven that came out, striding across the ground with huge clawed feet, its beak pecking at the rat, descending on it with a flurry of wings, slashing claws?
There was no fight. Just the rat mother’s flight and a quick, painful death. The raven looked up, its beak bloody. The Humans stared at the bird and backed away. Ryoka gulped. If that thing came at her—hell, a pack of the aggressive geese that liked to pick fights with picnickers would take one look at this thing and fly away.
The raven cawed. And the crows descended. They began digging at the same spot where it had driven the rat mother from as the raven began to devour the rat. None of them got anywhere close to the enchanted bird. But they were unearthing the rat warrens. And Mavika’s second finger made all the [Farmers] step back.
“As promised, Steward. [Primal Fear].”
Out came the rats. They fled into the waiting talons, too maddened with fright to hide. Not just in that field either; more crows descended, claws snatching, cawing. They swooped down, pecked at the writhing shapes, bore them up—
And then Ryoka saw bits of animals falling from the sky. The [Farmers] looked up and groaned as the birds dropped blood and flesh. Ram whirled.
The [Steward] was already addressing the [Witch].
“Witch Mavika. Can’t you persuade your flock to eat the—rats elsewhere?”
Mavika’s grin was unpleasant to see.
“That was part of no deal of ours, Steward Prost. The bones and flesh will nourish the ground. Is this not what you asked for?”
She gestured at the fields. Ryoka stared at the black army of crows and saw one pursuing a robin. The bird was flying away—right until the chase carried it into a second crow’s talons. The birds ripped the robin to shreds and the head fell into a field of corn. Along with dead grasshoppers, rats, a rabbit—it was turning into a scene of carnage. But the fields were intact.
Charlay gagged. And the [Farmers] looked no more happier. They began muttering amongst themselves.
“Lookit the parts. We’ll be picking rat bones out of our crops!”
“Bah. Better than weevils and grasshoppers out of our teeth! Think the crows’ll get the little things?”
“Doesn’t matter. Bad deal to make with a [Witch] if it is. I don’t care what Prost says about giving them a chance.”
“Do you want to fight those grasshoppers? Or the rats? Half our dogs won’t go after one four feet long! And it saves us the trouble of finding them. And they’ll watch the fields.”
“So what? I had a dog from Radivaek lands. You know, the Dog Lord’s domain? Best ratters in the world. She kept my land clean of pests. If I’d had her longer, I would’ve bred a litter. What can crows do better than a good pack?”
The City Runner broke off from listening to the [Farmers]. She saw Durene approaching with Prost. The [Steward] was shaking his head as Mavika continued directing her flock. Ryoka glanced at the man, a bit anxiously.
“Did I step in too much, Mister Prost?”
“No, no. I’m grateful for the help, Miss Griffin.”
“And the birds? Was that a good deal?”
The man hesitated.
“It’s alright. It’s a blow to give up the corn, but it’s better than what we’d’ve gotten if we had to fight the pests. And I think that [Witch] knows it.”
He gestured to Mavika. Ryoka nodded slowly.
“Except for them raining parts over your fields. And—crapping too.”
Prost groaned. Ryoka grinned weakly.
“That’s a proper [Witch]’s deal for you, I guess. But it’ll keep your plants safe?”
“That it will. Let’s just hope the crows let our [Farmers] work. I’ll keep them from complaining too loudly, don’t you worry.”
Prost waved a hand. Ryoka nodded and looked for Durene. She was still watching the crowd with Charlay. The half-Troll girl pointed at the large raven. It still hadn’t changed back.
“So this is what a [Witch] can do.”
Ryoka trotted over. She eyed the bird as it kept devouring the rat’s corpse. It was not a sight for the squeamish. And Ryoka’s own stomach was hurting a bit. From nausea or Charlay’s colic? She looked away.
“Are they all like that do you think?”
Charlay glanced at Ryoka. The Runner Girl shrugged. Slowly, the three began to walk back towards Riverfarm. And behind them, the crows cawed, claiming the fields as their own.
Day 57 – Rie
To the [Lady]’s relief, the issue of the [Witch]’s presence in Riverfarm seemed to have settled itself by the time she began her day. More or less. Or at least, with Mavika occupied in the fields, the worst objections were dealt with. The matter of Rehanna had been settled, to everyone’s surprise, by Alevica.
Prost had levied a fine on Mavika of two gold coins. Privately, Rie thought that might be too much for what had been a rather grave insult, but it was too little for some of the people who had seen the burning spell cast on the doorknob. And it was paid promptly by Alevica.
“Mavika owes me for this.”
The Witch Runner grumbled as she passed over two gold coins in front of a small audience. Rie took them gracefully and passed them to Nesor, who had control of her personal bag of holding. Rie thanked Alevica, got a sardonic grin and the crowd was assured Rehanna would see some of the money as compensation for her pain and that was that.
Privately, Rie was determined not to give Rehanna more than a few copper’s worth of the money, but the woman had heard about the fine and sought Rie out in moments. She spluttered when Rie handed her eight silver coins.
“I was told it was two gold coins!”
“And you destroyed a magical brew that was probably worth at least ten.”
Rie coolly informed Rehanna as the woman turned red with outrage. She didn’t know what Wiskeria’s soup was actually worth, but she was tired of Rehanna. The woman was spiteful, bitter towards Wiskeria and [Witches] in general, and a pawn of Beatica and Rodivek’s manipulations. Rehanna glared at Rie.
“This is unfair! I was injured! My hand was nearly burnt off!”
“And my [Mage], Nesor, healed you on the spot. Miss Rehanna, the cost of the healing potion alone was nearly worth the fine we posed. I would not continue arguing your point.”
Rie’s imperiously tilted chin made Rehanna remember who she was addressing. Geram looming over her shoulder also helped. The woman backed up.
“This is unfair! Those [Witches] killed a man! And they’re being allowed to go free?”
“Justice was served. You may dispute it, but I would ask anyone who was present. Or do you not know what Elmmet did, Miss Rehanna? I would repeat it, but I won’t sully my tongue with that filth.”
Rie’s voice was as cold as ice. She had heard from Prost what Elmmet had done and as far as she was concerned, he had died too slow. Abusing a child like that—Rie felt her stomach churning. Rehanna just stared at Rie and then her expression twisted.
“But they’re [Witches]. They—”
She looked around, realized no one was coming to her support, and turned and stormed off. Rie tsked, the only expression of anger she could let herself show.
She said as much to Eloise later that day. The [Witch] was hosting a tea party again, and this time Rie let herself be sucked into the circle of women—and men!—relaxing with her. The [Witch], or perhaps, [Tea Witch], had a Skill. But since it was clearly being used to calm and relax and build relationships between the disparate folk sitting around her, Rie was only too keen to encourage it. She smiled at Eloise. The woman was serving a sweeter tea today, one perfect for the children bouncing on laps. She had snaps, tea—where had she gotten it all from?
“A [Witch] does have her ways, Miss Rie.”
Eloise reached out and tapped Rie’s hand with a smile when Rie asked. It wasn’t even offensive, or patronizing, that was the thing. She was so…non-[Witch]-like that you couldn’t help but relax around her.
Part of Rie wondered if Ryoka Griffin was right and Eloise had a dark secret. She couldn’t imagine it, looking at the woman adjusting her flowery hat. Rie was no stranger to people with secrets, and Eloise struck her as genuine. If she had any hidden depths, they weren’t the ones that would come out and bite someone.
“Miss Eloise, you are a delight. Truly. I must say, this is such a pleasant experience. And after I thought—well, with those other [Witches]—but you’re so unlike them!”
A former [Shopkeeper] confessed as she ate hungrily from the plate of scones that Eloise was offering around. Rie knew what she meant, even if it was delivered with all the tact of a hammer to the hand. Eloise was sociable, kind, and generous. Totally unlike the others. She’d even invited Rehanna to the tea party. Rie was relieved the woman had declined and only snatched a few of the delicious scones.
“You’re too harsh on my fellow [Witches], Miss Velmir. And you, Miss Rie. Too harsh on Miss Rehanna, I think. We all benefit from considering others with kindness. My current coven is indeed full of [Witches] unlike me. But what they offer, they offer freely. You may always refuse them. Take Hedag for example. She is at work, and she is quite kind. Hers is a helping hand for those who need it. In her way, she is far better a [Witch] than I.”
Eloise gestured across the street towards Hedag. Rie turned in her seat, frowning. The [Executioner] had garnered a huge berth this morning and Rie had expected no one—save for perhaps angry folk from Lancrel—to go near her. She’d been expecting trouble, but to her surprise, Hedag had a number of children about her. And women.
Perhaps it was her booming laugh, or the way she was willing to toss children up or listen to them talk. She sat, listening to a girl solemnly show her a flower. She—Rie’s eyes focused on the girl’s face and narrowed.
“That’s Elmmet’s child.”
The tea circle went silent. Eloise nodded.
“But she killed—”
Miss Velmir lowered her voice hurriedly. Eloise nodded again and sipped from her cup, as calm as could be.
“After what was done to the girl, who else in this world do you think she would trust? Not her mother. But perhaps Hedag. But you’ll see the rest of her craft tonight. Look.”
She pointed and Rie saw Hedag laughing and waving her hand over the flower. Once, twice, three times, as if casting a spell. The little daffodil perked up a bit and the girl, delighted as the flower turned a bit brighter, clutched it and ran off to show the other children. Another boy replaced her, holding up a leather ball and demanding Hedag do the same. The [Witch] paused and said something and he nodded solemnly.
That was all Rie could imagine at the moment. She looked at Eloise. The woman had a knowing look that Rie didn’t like. There was something about Hedag that Prost hadn’t told Rie. He’d assured her that she was lawful, but that word clearly had a meaning to the villagers that they had refused to explain outright to Rie or anyone from the cities. Thoughtfully, Rie took another sip from her cup.
“I see. Well, I do agree that Miss Hedag is kind at the moment. But what of the rest of your…coven, Witch Eloise. I believe I saw the one called Alevica napping on a roof.”
“That sounds like her. I don’t believe she wishes to practice her craft. There’s not much for her to do at the moment. As for Califor and Nanette, they’re practicing magic no doubt. Their craft does not affect the village much either. But you see? We may keep to ourselves and have our own ways, but they are not so different from me, are they?”
Eloise chuckled ruefully. There was a murmur of protest and a young man from Lancrel raised his voice. He was off-duty as a [Woodcutter], but he had been a [Clerk] at the Merchant’s Guild. He was sitting with a giggling girl at the edge of the conversation.
“But you’re so much better than they are, Miss! But for the hat and you’d be like my grandmother, but nicer!”
“Ah, but I am a [Witch], young man. And the hat must remain or else you’d think just that of me.”
Eloise’s kind response provoked relaxed laughter. But the young girl, giggling and taking her cue from the young [Clerk], spoke up. Rie eyed her. She was probably seventeen, but she acted like she was four years younger.
“But Miss Eloise, we’d all love you more without the hat! What’s wrong with taking it off? Otherwise you remind us of those horrid other [Witches], like the horrible lady with birds!”
Rie inhaled slightly. This was crossing from banter into rudeness. But Eloise’s smile didn’t waver. It only deepened. She paused as the other tea-drinkers looked at her uncertainly.
“Young lady. What if I said I’d love you more and be more at ease if you took off your shirt? Or that young man his pants? What would you say then?”
The said young lady blushed and stammered a reply, but the young man, drunk on bravado, stood up.
“I’ll do that!”
So saying, he yanked his pants down. There was a peal of laughter from the young women and Rie sighed and averted her eyes from some underwear that was thankfully in place. Pale legs—the rest of the tea circle groaned or laughed and a man snapped.
“Put your pants back on, Delgriff! You’re among ladies!”
The young man, flushing, began to do that. But Eloise’s voice interrupted him.
“What are you doing, Mister Delgriff?”
He stopped, flushing as more laughter passed around the table.
“Uh—putting my pants back on?”
“But you asked me to take my hat off. And you offered to take your pants off. Shouldn’t you keep them off as long as we’re sitting?”
More raucous laughter. Even Rie couldn’t help but smile. The young man flushed and Miss Velmir leaned over knowingly.
“I see. So his pants are like your hat?”
“Not at all. Pants and hats are quite different, Miss Velmir. I don’t imagine I’d provoke such notice if I took my hat off. But there is something similar.”
The tea circle looked at her as Delgriff, flushing, got his pants back up. Eloise nodded to him, smiling.
“Mister Delgriff has reclaimed his pants, and perhaps they shall never come off in our presence again. One may only hope. But we shall ever remember you without, Mister Delgriff, no matter how long and how many times you come to us with pants on. So. My hat stays on. Because I am a [Witch]. And I do not change. You may love me or hate me, but you must remember: a [Witch] I remain.”
Her words this time left only a thoughtful silence. And after a bit, when Lady Rie had regretfully excused herself, she looked at Geram. The [Fistfighter] was brushing crumbs off his front. Rie smiled and looked back at Eloise, who was letting a new circle of people come to sit with her. Those leaving looked invigorated, and many were holding tea packets they’d purchased from her. Lady Rie smiled.
“I believe I love that old lady, Geram.”
“She reminds me of the grandmother I never had, Lady Valerund.”
The man wistfully agreed. Rie sighed and shook her head.
“What was she saying about Rehanna, though? That dreadful woman?”
“She lost her husband during the battle for Lancrel.”
Geram reminded his mistress. Lady Rie paused and a moment of guilt flashed across her face.
“Oh yes. I had forgotten. Even so…well, she is allowed her grief, but not spitefulness.”
Geram nodded, but he glanced back at the tea circle.
“There might be more. The [Witch]—Miss Eloise—was asking about Rehanna before you sat with them. Some of the people there looked fairly serious when they replied. Should I ask what was said?”
Lady Rie hesitated.
“No. I don’t think it matters. For now. Tell me. I’ve accounted for Eloise, Califor, Nanette…the Witch Runner, I forget her name already—Alevica, yes—Mavika, Hedag. But where is the one called…Belavierr?”
Geram paused. He looked around with a frown.
“I…haven’t seen her.”
“You normally keep an eye on everyone you consider dangerous.”
“I do. And I don’t remember seeing her this morning.”
“Is she still abed?”
Lady Rie looked around. She saw Rehanna, standing apart from the tea circle, looking on with a mixture of jealously and anger. And Eloise, clearly beckoning her. Rie smoothed her skirts and then walked back to Eloise.
“Miss Eloise. May I ask if you know where your…fellow [Witch], Belavierr is? Is she still resting at this hour?”
The table went quiet. The name of the seventh [Witch] could do that, even at Eloise’s merry gathering. And the [Witch] sitting there tugged on her hat and her smile flickered.
“No. But I don’t believe you’d find her easily, Lady Rie. With that said, I wish you hadn’t spoken her name.”
“I beg your pardon. Is there a quarrel between the two of you? She is a member of your coven, isn’t she?”
Fascinated, Rie prodded carefully. And Eloise’s look told her plainly that the [Witch] knew what she was doing. With a sigh, Eloise shook her head and stood up.
“No. But there is a philosophical difference between she and I. To put it plainly, if Belavierr stands on one side, I stand on the other. We respect each other, but we do not get along.”
“Because she’s a bad witch?”
Someone suggested that from the back of the circle. Eloise turned and the laughter faded uneasily. The [Witch] looked around and nodded.
“Yes. And no. She offers trinkets, charms, and she can be very good. Helpful, even. If she sells her trinkets, I would advise you to buy them no matter the cost. But if she seeks you out, I would not take any deal she offers you. And I fear, Miss Rie, that she is seeking to practice her craft today.”
She walked past the circle of people sitting around her table. Rie followed her.
“And how do you know that, Miss Eloise?”
“Because I know what she looks for. Which is why I am here, Lady Rie Valerund. Just like how Hedag sits with the children and worried wives. We know who seeks us. And I am seeking the same person Belavierr looks for. Will you convince her to sit with me?”
The [Witch] pointed ahead. And Lady Rie saw the woman she was indicating.
“Rehanna? Why her?”
The woman was sitting by herself now, on the ground. Her hand was healed, but she was holding it as if it were still burned. And her face was bitter, angry—and miserable. She sat alone, and neither Riverfarm’s folk, nor Lancrel’s people were with her. She was a villager, but she had scorned Wiskeria’s gift and she wasn’t one of the city dwellers who joined together to sneer at what made Riverfarm’s people so enduring. Eloise looked at Rehanna.
“I asked, and she was one woman of many Belavierr would look for. But I think, she would be the first Belavierr sought. Her grief is fresh. And she is alone of friends. I realize she is not pleasant, Lady Rie. But she has a reason to her grief.”
Rie frowned. There was a puzzle here and her mind realized she was missing something.
“You don’t mean her husband. She was recently bereaved—”
“Half. That is half the reason. Do you know why she came to Riverfarm with her husband, Miss Rie?”
“She…was fleeing the Goblins. I think she was part of Mister Helm’s village. Windrest.”
“Yes. She has a husband there. A home. And a child.”
“Oh. I didn’t know.”
Rie stared at Rehanna. So she’d had a child before she fled. Which meant the Goblins had killed her. Him. Was it a baby? A miscarriage? Or a young child?
It changed nothing, surely. Rehanna was still the woman who’d kicked over Wiskeria’ kettle and who had tried to overturn Laken’s authority. But knowing that one fact changed a lot. It made her look like a different woman, sitting there. Rie looked at Eloise, ashamed. And the [Witch] nodded. She adjusted her hat.
“Kindness asks questions, Lady Rie Valerund. And it is kindness I seek to spread. That is my craft, my reason for existing and my root of magic. It is not Belavierr’s. So hope that I succeed.”
She strode forwards towards Rehanna. Rie watched, uncomprehending, but now she felt it. On the very edges of her senses. Not the senses she had as a [Lady], but something more primal. A tickling on the back of her neck. A little tapping at her mind telling her to look.
She turned around slowly. And for a second, she didn’t see Belavierr. But the [Witch]’s presence had silenced the merry tea party on the street. Every head turned, until they were all looking in the same direction.
And then you saw her. Standing in the shadow of two houses, as still as a statue. Her wide hat was raised, her glowing eyes staring. Across the street, Eloise looked up as Rehanna spat at her. She bent down and offered the woman a hand. Rehanna slapped it away. And Belavierr began to walk.
“This way, children.”
Hedag’s voice was the sole sound on the street. The children who had been playing moved at her voice and ran sideways as she walked left, out of Belavierr’s path. They hid behind Hedag, whose smile reflected the sun. But Belavierr’s presence was a shadow. She kept moving, and Rie realized her path was as straight as an arrow. Moving towards Rehanna. And her eyes were fixed on the woman.
“Miss Rehanna, sit with me.”
Eloise’s voice was patience, but strained ever-so-slightly with urgency. Rehanna spat at her.
“I don’t want your tea or biscuits. [Witch]! [Witch]! And I’m not afraid of her either!”
She pointed a trembling finger at Belavierr. She really wasn’t afraid, Rie realized. Astounding as that was, she looked at Belavierr with only anger. The [Witch] was approaching. Eloise was trying to persuade Rehanna—the woman shoved her back. She rounded to face Belavierr, clenching her fists. What would happen if she struck the [Witch]? Belavierr was giving her no reason to, but she was striding forwards and Rehanna had planted herself in the way. She was daring a collision.
But what was Rie missing? The answer, part of it, presented itself as someone broke the silent street’s quiet. Wiskeria skidded around the corner, panting, her robes and hat askew. She ran forwards and shouted.
Belavierr’s head turned, but her pace didn’t slow. Neither did it increase, though, and Wiskeria ran forwards. The three met in the street, Rehanna, Wiskeria, and Belavierr. Wiskeria threw an arm between Belavierr and Rehanna and the woman spat.
“What do you want?”
“Rehanna, don’t listen to her. Belavierr is my mother and a [Witch]—but she doesn’t make deals you want to accept. Listen to me—”
She reached for Rehanna and something snapped in the woman. Rie saw it. She turned on Wiskeria and screamed.
“I don’t want to hear it! You let my husband die at Lancrel! Do you remember his name? Do you even know who he was?”
She raised a hand and struck at Wiskeria, punching at her face and knocking her spectacles aside. Wiskeria grabbed for them and stumbled back. Rie hissed.
“Geram, go arrest Rehanna. Place her in the stocks—no, just confine her to her house. Maybe that will solve—”
Before the man could move, Rehanna lashed out again. Wiskeria was grabbing for the spectacles, which had fallen but not shattered on the ground. She kicked at the [Witch] and Wiskeria yelped. Rehanna raised a hand to slap—
And Belavierr caught it. It was so fast Rie blinked. Geram halted uncertainly. Rehanna spun.
“How dare you—”
She punched Belavierr in the face. Rie saw the impact, saw Belavierr’s head snap back a bit. The entire street went quiet. Rehanna hit Belavierr in the face. In the chest, struck her leg, kicking—Belavierr didn’t blink.
And then it was quiet. Rehanna paused, panting, and stared as Belavierr slowly let go. Wiskeria got up and opened her mouth. Belavierr twitched a finger and Wiskeria’s mouth closed. She regarded her daughter for one moment, and then turned to Rehanna. She paused. Looked up.
“It appears to be a fair morning.”
Everyone stared up at the sky. It was indeed a clear day. No clouds in sight. The sun was actually fairly bright, a pleasantness after all the rain. Belavierr nodded.
“Quite pleasant. Although I expected rain. Still, one is not always right, it seems.”
The words were so out of place that all Rehanna, Rie, and everyone else could do was stare. Rie heard a strangled laugh from behind her. It was hilarious to hear Belavierr say something which didn’t match the scene. And then—terrifying when you looked at her and understood. Belavierr went on after a pause.
“Good morning to you, Mistress. My name is Belavierr.”
There it was again. The words came out cautiously, slowly. Rie listened, saw Belavierr choosing each one. It wasn’t that she was out of sync with the world. It was something that bothered Rie far, far more. It sounded with each word like Belavierr was feeling for what should be said.
Like…someone. Something pretending to be Human, but who had forgotten how it went. She didn’t look around. She didn’t blink. The blows Rehanna had given her could have been an illusion.
“What do you want? I’m not scared of you.”
Rehanna was breathing hard, her eyes flashing with rage and even tears of fury. Or grief? Rie watched Belavierr inspect her face. And whatever was in there—the [Witch] nodded.
“I have business with you, Miss Rehanna Salesmith. You have something I want. And I have something to offer you.”
“I want nothing you [Witches] could ever offer me!”
Rehanna screamed back in Belavierr’s face. She whirled, but Belavierr’s fingers twisted. A bit of thread tangled and Rehanna stopped. She turned back, her face red.
“What did you—”
“Listen. This is what I have to offer.”
Belavierr’s head bent. Rehanna glared, her face red and white with sudden fear. Wiskeria groaned. She was held too. Rie looked around. And Eloise moved. The small [Witch] strode forwards.
“Miss Rehanna, a word. I think tea would be—”
Belavierr caught her hand as she reached for Rehanna. The two [Witches] locked gazes for a moment. Then—it was too late. Belavierr spoke in Rehanna’s ear.
The woman’s face went white. Rie had seen men hit with spells and arrows die before her eyes in battle. The Sacrifice of Roses. It looked very much like the same had happened to Rehanna. She stumbled, fell backwards onto the street and stared up at Belavierr. The [Witch] straightened and Eloise let out a long, pained sigh as she stepped back. Something had been done.
“That is what I offer. Would you like to see it?”
Rehanna stared at her, her face still bloodless. Then she got up. She shook so hard that Rie thought she was having some kind of seizure. She stared at Belavierr, and then turned and ran. Ran so fast that she was gone before anyone could blink. Rie stared at the empty street, and then at Belavierr.
The [Witch] had paused. She held still where she stood, but her head was turning. Tracking someone through the houses, turning slowly, ever so slowly—and stopping. She looked straight into a wall as she stood in the street. And there she stood. Silent. Immobile as Wiskeria got up and tried to talk to her, as Eloise walked back and disbanded the tea circle. It certainly could not stay.
And there the [Witch] stood. For minutes, and then nearly an hour, as Lady Rie shakily got back to work. As Ryoka found a reason for being in Riverfarm. As Durene heard a warning about [Witches], delivered too late. Belavierr stood and waited, perfectly still until something changed. She tilted her head and nodded.
Somewhere there had been an answer. A reply, wrenched from a pain-filled soul. An answer to a bargain only Belavierr and Rehanna had been privy to. Lady Rie Valerund did not know what the deal entailed. She did not know the cost or the result yet. And she did not know what the reply had been. But she feared, greatly, deeply, and with all her heart, that the answer had been ‘yes’.