Lambs of Stray;
Distracted by the call, Eliot missed the last word given by the divine spirit. Holy water in the silver bowl dried up and the divine spirit vanished as soon as it finished revealing the answer.
The Witch grunted lightly in disappointment. She hovered to the circular window below the roof and revolved the stained glass pane along a horizontal pivot. Not seeing too clearly where her unlucky guest was, Eliot directed some light towards the garden. She twirled two small pins at the top and bottom of the window frame. The inner metal-frame mechanism flipped and reordered the colored stained glasses into two distinct sides: one of transparence and one of color. And with a silvery foil shutter locked into place, the window rotating was transformed into a mirror using which she controlled the beam of light’s direction.
A short distance from the lightning shock trap, she spotted the bishop of Ironheart on the ground near a dead tree trunk. Next to him laid the horse on its side, twitching.
“Father Felacia, are you alright?” she voiced out.
“Thanks God I’m alive,” the bishop got up on his feet.
He was roughened up but appeared okay. His horse was not as lucky; it would not be going anywhere anytime soon.
“It’s just being, you know…shocked. I’m sure it’ll be fine in an hour or two, I guess?” the Witch awkwardly remarked.
“I don’t have an hour or two. I only need a small favor from you and then I must go back to Ironheart immediately!”
He sounded rather annoyed.
“Don’t worry, father,” she chuckled, his dilemma did not seem to concern her very much, “I’ll have Stardust take you home,” she said and got off the window.
The Witch did not wait for the broom to descend. She alit in mid-air and hung on to the broom by her hands. She brought her center of gravity lower, then, she let go, and her feet softly landed on the floor.
At floor level, the Witch motioned her index finger and commanded the broom to nudge the mirror window; until the beam of light was redirected from the upper section of the house, to a fixed mirror at the other end, and then to the ritual site below.
There were ashes of her notes, remnants of ritual ingredients, and old scriptures untouched by the divine spirit. She inspected the scene and recovered the last letter from the divination: the letter B. It was a clue. If she could figure out a place in the Cathedral that ended with the letter B, it would save her the problem preparing another divination.
She couldn’t but she knew who could.
Other than that, she could see some stone fragments from the shattered sentry rune on the front door. Whatever had caused the rune to crack open had drained its magic dry. It could be dangerous, it could be not. Then again, she had an important guest whom she should not anger more than she already had. Seeing there was nothing else she could learn about the shattered rune, Eliot tidied up the ritual leftovers in a hurry and stepped outside to greet the bishop.
The man wore a grey cassock, a pectoral cross hung by his neck, a leather belt to which strapped a small brown pouch, and a linen backpack on his back. He was thrice her age and yet somehow his hair was not completely grey. He did not keep a beard; he was the kind who preferred tidiness.
“That’s one beautiful window you have there, Eliot,” father Felacia remarked.
She heard his voice, he could see her thanked to the radiance of the beam but she could not see him well now that it was dark on his side again.
“You like it, father?”
“Very, they can certainly use one of those in the first Church’s mess hall. It was dark as hell the last time I was there.”
“I’ll just walk you in…” she said in monotone, strolling through the trap-filled garden to the bishop’s side. Her voice had lost the brief peppiness just then. She wasn’t fond of conversations related to the Holy Church.
“Ah, my apology, forget what I’ve just said.”
“Hmph, you always make it hard to dislike you,” she pouted, “Right this way, father. Follow my steps,” she led the way.
“But I can barely see anything out here! How can you even see anything in this darkness?”
“It’s my garden…”
“Not mine for sure. Hang on, help me turn the horse over, there are flints and spare torches in the bag underneath,” the bishop proposed.
That meant physical work. The Witch did not fancy the idea of performing unpaid physical work for something so trivial. She suggested an alternative:
“Well, father. I don’t think we should disturb the horse. You can hold my shoulder and pray to your God that you won’t grope anywhere unnecessary.”
He chuckled at the added remark, “You’re quite self-conscious today, aren’t you?”
“I’m kidding. You’re free to grope me anywhere, only you today. That would make us even, wouldn’t it?” she teased the devoted man.
“My deceased wife would kill me in my afterlife if I did. And afterlife would be merciful, wouldn’t it?”
The Witch laughed, “Yes, father,” she curtly replied.
As Eliot led the bishop to her house, through the trap-filled garden, she asked him about the visit. She heard he had gone to Azeth for a few days. If it was true, it would be too soon for him to come back at this time.
“So, father Felacia, which angel brings you here today?”
“—please, beloved father, I need another bottle of holy water,” she cut in the bishop’s line in a quiet and swift flattery as if it was a prayer, “Somebody must pay for the ingredient cost of the ritual you interrupted,” she pled.
The bishop looked down at his belt; he opened the leather pouch strapped to his waist and grabbed a crystal-clear flask. It had the exact design as the one she had just used up, minus the submerged metallic cross. He gave the Witch what she wanted and resumed his explanation:
“As I was saying, I went to Azeth the other day and met the Archbi—”
He was interrupted again, this time by the sound of broken glass. The Witch grabbed a small hammer from her hat, and with it she smashed the old flask into pieces. The cross inside fell out and tumbled towards the door.
As she was crawling ahead to pick it up, the cross, which was lying in front of the door, suddenly popped into the air and melded into oblivion. She gasped and backed off and bumped into the bishop, losing her balance.
The bishop caught her back.
“Oh, how bold, father! Let’s us consummate—,” she grinned at him, blinking expectantly.
“—let’s not. The Lord is watching, Eliot,” he nudged her upright, not letting the Witch cling to him any second longer.
“By the way, did you see that?” she asked, casting a quizzing glance at the door.
The bishop raised an eyebrow.
“See what? That you smashed the bottle I’ve just given you? Or that you hid a hammer in your hat? Or that you tried to seduce me again?”
“Your bottle is still here, that was my old bottle,” the Witch showed him the new water flask, “I mean the cross talisman used for warding off the Forest’s blight. It was right here, now it’s gone,” she explained.
The Witch raised one hand at the ground in front of the door and slowly waved across the surface. As she traced the ambient magic for the source of disturbance, she realized there was no magic at all in the area and the lack thereof confused her. She retracted her hand and visually examined the proximity further. After a short moment, she scratched her neck, and walked in and out a few times.
The bishop threw a puzzled gaze at her, “Prestidigitation, perhaps?” he proposed.
She shook her head. She gave up; it was so unusual.
“Then what is it?” he asked.
“A magic suppression field, I think,” she guessed, scratching her chin. “Well, it doesn’t matter. Come on in.”
Around eight years ago, blight began to emerge in the Western region of Ironheart. The blight corrupted the land, poisoned the water and rotted the air. According to the Witch’s explanation, what most people were not aware of was the fact that even magic in the region was corrupted. It is dangerous to use magic tainted by the blight, not even the Necromancer of Merlock would dare channel such miasmas through his body.
To be able to use magic in the Dark Forest called for special arrangements; which, for her best interests she said, to be kept hidden. However, she did mention magic suppression field as a way to delay the corruption, albeit one would end up losing a great deal of ambient magic to it.
It was the first time the bishop heard of such concepts.
“I have no idea how it,—she referred to the suppression field—, got there but as long as it stops the blight from coming in till I sort things out, it’s doing me a favor.”
Eliot grabbed a jar of salt from a shelf and took a new warding cross out of it. When she squeezed the small cross into the holy water, its crisp white surface turned silvery metallic and hardened. The Witch put the jar back on the shelf and threw the holy water bottle into one of the many drawers of a small chest sitting next to the shelf to the left of the ritual circle.
“So, what were you talking about before? Something about going to Azeth?”
She slid a hidden trap door on the wooden flooring at the center of the house and sat down next to it. Underneath the trap door was a fire pit made of stone about half a meter in diameter. She rubbed her hands together and clapped and with that the fire pit was lit.
“Aye,” the bishop sat down on the opposite site of the fire, “I met the Archbishop. He told me he had foreseen everything—”
“Uh huh…and?” the Witch crossed her arm, listening attentively.
“—and he said that you would bring death upon Ironheart tomorrow”
The Witch burst into laughter.
“He obviously didn’t foresee us in cahoots then,” she mused.
“He didn’t but I have to warn you against visiting Ironheart tomorrow,” the bishop advised.
The Witch hissed and smacked her tongue.
“Tsk, I honestly wouldn’t give a damn. I mean, they blamed me for the blight. Isn’t that already the same as saying I bring death upon Ironheart?”
He kept silent for a few seconds, and then he sighed:
“That’s true, if you put it that way…”
“Father, I have buckwheat cookies and red tea, would you like some?”
She shoved a plate of cookies and put some tea leaves into a witch’s classic black iron cauldron filled with white misty water to the brim. The water turned red and it started to bubble when she put the cauldron on top of the fire.
“Did you run out of water again? I told you, that foggy tea of yours isn’t drinkable.”
“Have some cookies then,” she insisted, then she turned the topic back to his request: “Very well, if you say so, I won’t visit Ironheart tomorrow. Is there anything else you want to request?”
“What about you?” the bishop pointed at Eliot.
“No-No way, father,” she waved her hands in dismissal and said, “You can’t request me. Wait, you can, I did say—but, but that was supposed to be a joke!” she shied away from him, “Well…alright, if you insist. Just…just give me a minute,” she said in a low tone. Her face turned bright red.
The bishop chuckled. It then seemed amusing to him. And then, she did it. She undressed and threw her blouse at his feet.
“Just how frustrated are you!?” the bishop uttered, covering his eyes with his hands, “Put your clothes back on! I never request anything like this. I only asked if you wanted to request anything. This is wickedness!”
“Please, father! I’m a witch. Being wicked and pervert is what I do,” she replied in surprising calmness, “It has nothing to do with frustration. It’s about doing what needs to be done; to please he who would let you survive the cold night, to sell your self-esteem for a piece of bread so that you may live another day. Living is the wickedness I saw in West Rufus. When the plague hit, you weren’t a bishop, were you? And the women I saw in West Rufus yesterday were the same; they weren’t witches. Yet, in the name of the Lord, those women were turned into cinder. If I could not match their wickedness then who am I to call myself a witch?”
“I don’t know what you are talking about!”
The Witch stared at him. He appeared to be genuinely surprised.
“Do you swear in the name of your God that you don’t know anything?”
“I swear! I was in Merlock with the elders yesterday!”
The fire went out and the mirror high above flipped back to ordinary, transparent window. The room was plunged into darkness for a brief minute. Then, the fire was lit again. To the bishop’s surprise, a large iron cauldron appeared in place of the Witch. Peering into the cauldron, the bishop found Eliot. She donned her silk cloak, tipping her hat slightly so as to hide her face.
There was an awkward silence at the fire pit.
“Eliot…what was that about?” the bishop broke the silence with a hesitant question.
“Your church killed them,” she muttered under her breath, then, she bit her pinky’s nail, looked at the holy man in the eyes and blurted out a terrible news, “Seven women were killed in your absence, father! Your church dragged them out from the slump, and burned them alive in the name of God. They thought I was one of the women…It’s over, father. The truce is over.”
The bishop gasped, he kept silent and let the news sink in for a moment: “The truce is not over, Eliot. I promise I’ll do everything within my power to stop it from happening. Nevertheless, I must beg your pardon. There’s no reason to go as far as you did just now…”
“There’s a meaning in this. I owe you so much and while I cannot end myself to repent killing you, I can fulfill every request you have, including…that one,” she uttered in hushed tone.
The bishop stood there and froze. His face turned pale and his throat went dry. He understood the implication. He could have been dead.
After that, the conversation never picked up again. The atmosphere remained suffocating until the bishop could not bear the silence any longer. Finally, he patted her head and thanked her for the talk. He had the Witch led him through her trap-filled garden again, taking a candle with her this time.
The horse was missing.
“Did you…perhaps…tie the horse to a trunk or something, father?”
“From the look of it, I must have forgotten…”
Unlike before, he suppressed the fact that he was troubled.
“Or it was eaten,” Eliot bit her pinky’s nail again. “Terrible things come out at night in the Dark Forest. And, it seems the moon will be blue again tonight.”
“The blue moon huh?”
The bishop sighed.
“Don’t worry, father. I’ll lend you Stardust,” the Witch offered him her broomstick.
“It’s alright, Eliot. I don’t need it,” he turned her offer down. “I’m terrible with heights so I’ll pass on flying. There’s still a bit of daylight left, if I rush to the main road, I can still hitch a ride to Ironheart before sunset. I’ll be fine on my own,” the bishop assured.
She read between the lines. He didn’t want her to follow him.
And it was fine with her as well. Deep down, she knew their relationship could never be the same again. She knew neither of them would enjoy each other’s company beyond this last crossing. She understood that if he were to never return, she could only have herself to blame. After all, she did try to seduce and kill him.
“If you say so, father,” the Witch reluctantly nodded.
“Can you fetch me the torch over there?” he pointed at the unlit torch on the ground.
She fetched him the torch and lit it up with the candle she was holding. Then, from under the frills of her silk mantle, Eliot took out a paper talisman and handed it to the bishop along with the torch. “Take this with you too,” she insisted.
The bishop took a look at the paper. It was a palm-size, rectangular talisman woven from small reddish jungle vines with sophisticated patterns drawn in white colored ink. As soon as he touched the paper, the magic symbols changed into the color of gold and the talisman slowly disintegrated.
“That was sneaky of you. You got me, Eliot. I guess this means I shouldn’t touch a magic item, huh? What is it for this time?”
“You wouldn’t need a charm for your protection, father. I know the Lord is watching over you. But, I still want you to have it for my nerves. The charm matches your magic signs to mine and, in this forest, anything with half a brain would know I smell and taste bad.”
The Witch cast a distant gaze as she shared a bit of her life: “There can only be so much washing I can do with one set of clothes. And the price of water has just gone up too…”
The bishop cracked a forced smile. Listening to the Witch talking about her quality of life was no doubt depressing. He could tell, without experiencing it himself, how harsh her life was as an outcast at the epicenter of the plague.
“Well, still, that’s a creative way to put it. Maybe the Archbishop should learn a thing or two from you after all. Before I go, there’s one thing I want you to know. You care too much for other people; you’ll end up hurting yourself some days. And…I don’t hate that part of you. It reminds me of my late wife…”
In the last light of day, the bishop of Ironheart spotted a red tint across the Witch of the Dark Forest’s cheek. She turned her face away as soon as she noticed his stare. There, running away from him was not the cruel-heart sorceress the Citadel made her out to be but a caring hermit who wished only peace and companionship.
“Good bye, Eliot,” he smiled, bidding the Witch farewell.
And, it was the last time she saw him smiling so gently at her;
The bishop of Ironheart passed away that night…
*Revision June 2016.