It took a Herculean effort to remain composed when Leo stated his request. The gray-eyed man told them up front, with an uncanny frankness, that he wanted to heal the Witch and then let her go.
“That’s some almighty faith you put in me, Leo. You do realize you cannot stop me if I say “no”, right?” said the Baron. He was calm; he was expecting a logical explanation from the man.
“This is also Father Felacia’s wish—”
“—don’t you dare bring—” the Priestess snapped at him but the Baron held her back.
“Please, explain,” the Baron patiently demanded.
“In this world, there are wizards so ancient, so powerful that they do not rely on the magic of the land but they shape the land to their magic. They are…let’s call them “domain wizards”. The Black Witch of Ironheart is one such people. This is only the preface. To discuss the topic at hand, it is important to know what domain wizards are and it is also equally important to know their role in the history of Ashlora…”
The Baron grunted: “Too long, keep it short!”
His knights were already starting to lose their patience.
“Do you know Fa’el, the sky city north west of Copperfang cavern?”
“The one with the dragon? Yes, I have heard.”
“Long story short, they poisoned the domain wizard out of fear. Big mistake! Without the domain wizard, no one could stop their guardian dragon from going on a rampage. And you know how this story ended. It ended with the Archbishop and his army slaying the dragon, and the city fell from the sky.”
“Correlation does not equal causation,” the Baron said.
“I would claim falsehood on it too if not for yesterday. Last night, I saw the Witch battling a dragon, two monster skeletons, a black-fume-breathing undead rider, and the bloody Necromancer of Merlock. Now you tell me what I should believe in!”
The Baron shrugged. He nodded at the expectant gaze of the knights, he knew what they were thinking, and they nodded back, confirming that they knew what he was thinking as well.
“He’s mad…” Lilia uttered what they all had in mind.
“Indeed he is…”; “No question about it”; and “I second that” were the replies.
“I’m not mad! I have the Witch, the Witch is here! Come here! I’ll show you!” he shouted, running off to a room upstairs.
None of the tavern-dwellers took him seriously. As an unspoken rule of Brown’s Boulder, anyone shouting “I’m not mad” followed by any variant of nonsensical, dangerous and impossible claims should be treated as “too drunk to tell the sky from the earth”.
They all shook their heads.
And so there they were, standing in front of the room in question.
There was only one large room to the right hand side of a narrow wooden corridor. The only door leading into the room was at the end of the corridor. The Roman number III was carved on it. If Lilia took a few more steps from the door towards a locked balcony, she would have a bird-eye view of the marketplace outside. That direction was north, however, so she would not be able to behold Ironheart’s sunrise from the balcony.
The Baron knocked on the door and turned the knob. The door opened.
Lying on a double bed a distance into the candle-lit room was a black-haired woman. She was shivering uncontrollably, curling into a ball so as not to expose her feet or neck out of a cocoon made of a double-folded blanket. And even though pale and sickly, she was a captivating beauty just as the bartender described; so captivating that Lilia couldn’t help but wonder whether it was by nature or by magic.
The Baron took a look at the furniture and then the woman. There was nothing magical in the room, there was only the waiter sitting on a chair next to the bed and Leo waiting by the doorway.
“So…you say she is the Witch?” the Baron raised an eyebrow, glancing at the man named Leo, “This is the ugly, wrinkly, old hag who kills by taking your shadow?”
“Trust me, she is the Witch.”
The Baron and the knights looked at one another. They exchanged skeptical glances. None of them seemed to have been convinced. Lilia wouldn’t believe such a dubious claim either.
Like a switch being flipped in his mind, the man suddenly changed from claiming this woman was a Witch to shaking the woman up, saying:
“Okay, Witch! See that? They don’t believe me even if I slap them with the truth. You can stop pretending now. It’s my win, pay up!”
The Baron let out a long sigh and motioned the knights to pull Leo away from the woman. “You are such a disgrace, Leo. How low have you fallen since Silverflow booted you from the Council? Morgan, get him a cup of water, chicken’s feathers and a bucket,” he ordered. Then, he gave the Priestess a nudge. “See if she’s okay.”
The man, restrained by two burly knights, threw his hands in the air.
There were dirty bandages under the bed and traces of herbal medicines on the end table by the bed. Only the Priestess approached the woman. She picked from her pouch a blank paper and drew mystical inscriptions on it with a piece of coal. Then, she placed the page next to the woman, one hand holding her wand and the other hand holding up the woman’s hand.
The woman’s skin was ice cold. Her pulses were incredibly weak.
“Stay till,” the Priestess commanded as she waved her wand about and focused on an incantation in her mind.
The inscriptions on the Priestess’s paper began to infuse in dark purple energy drawn out from the woman’s hand. Additional runes glowing purple appeared on top of existing ones. Lilia inspected the resulting paper. She was in shock and awe at the reflection of this woman’s magic signs. There was a glint of realization in her eyes and she turned to the Baron, dropping a bombshell:
“My lord, her magic signs matched. She’s the Witch.”
Leo threw his hands in the air again, “As I said, you are very welcome!” he sarcastically remarked, yanking his shoulders from the knights’ grip. He was quickly restrained again.
The Baron came closer, as though hearing was not convincing enough, he gave the woman a push and yanked the blanket off. There, they saw a part of the blanket soaked in blood.
There was a hole in this woman’s abdomen. She was slashed by a bladed weapon, possibly an axe. The Priestess could see fragments of icicles and she sensed the necrotic kind of ice magic in these fragments. The ice latched into the open wound, causing profuse bleeding. On the rag cloth, there was a Spellweave enchantment that had been absorbing some of the ice, and there was also a yellowish layer of herbal medicine that had been protecting the wound from inflection.
Unfortunately, neither the enchantment nor the medicine could make the situation better. The wound had started bleeding again.
The Baron contemplated in silent.
“Pardon me?” the Priestess gasped, “she killed—”
The Baron raised his hand to interrupt her.
“What Leo said is serious; I’m not taking any risks. Unforeseeable risk, that is. Seal her magic, break her wand, cut her—no, I need her to answer my questions—, put a rag in her mouth. Make her harmless but don’t maim her,” he said with a cold indifference in his voice.
The Priestess bowed, “As you wish, my lord.”
Lilia searched the Witch’s body for concealed weapons. She found some paper talismans, an Amulet of Prying and nothing else. No wand, no staff, no broomstick anywhere in sight. Judging from how lightly the Witch dressed and the faint scent of a weak paralysis poison in her medicine, she guessed Leo had taken precautions. He seemed mad but he wasn’t dumb. She needed to keep an eye on this character and his friends.
She prepared bandages and attempted a healing spell on the open wound. The magic did not work as well as it should have. It only slowed down the bleeding momentarily.
“Who fixed this bandage?” the Priestess asked, darting her stare at Leo. Her voice was loud and hurried.
“Eh…ah…he did it!” Leo pointed his finger across the room…
At the waiter who had just returned with a bucket and a cup of water. His face was full of surprise when everyone in the room stared at him. The two knights who were restraining Leo took their turn smacking the head of this madman.
“Who fixed this bandage?” the Priestess repeated her question, this time, she looked at the waiter. She expected a real answer from him.
The waiter pointed at himself.
“Hah!” Leo hissed at the knights. They shut him up with chicken’s feathers.
“But I can’t use magic,” the waiter said.
The Priestess gave Morgan a frown. She believed a mental sigh would not justify the idiocy of this short exchange. “Perhaps I asked the wrong question. Who cast the magic on this bandage?”
Both of them pointed at the Witch.
“She’s a witch! She can’t be using Spellweave!”
“She can. Morgan taught her how,” Leo said, blowing feathers out of his mouth.
Lilia cast a skeptical gaze at the man named Morgan for a moment. He appeared to be around her age, in his late twenties or so. There was nothing to talk about his tavern clothes, nor was there anything to talk about his average build. He seemed much shorter than he actually was, standing next to Leo and Sir Richard; those two were not the tallest people around but they already had to be wary of head bumps.
But his knowledge of Spellweave was undeniably real.
She did not detect any magic when he showed her the movement and the incantation. No doubt about it; he knew how but he could not wield magic. Nevertheless, she could tell the cause of his inability was far from normal; she detected a void in which ambient magic ceased to flow in the space surrounding Morgan. It was almost as if he was encased in a suppression field.
With his aid, the Witch was healed. The curse was removed. It would take a few weeks for the wound to close naturally. Lilia would cast a seal on the Witch while she still could. But, she underestimated the strength of the curse and the Witch’s resistance to her magic. She expended so much power that she could barely talk. At least, she would not have to participate in any witch hunt the day after. None of them would.
The Witch had stopped shivering. Her pulses returned to natural rhythm and she was no longer in need of her blanket cocoon. “Ah,” Lilia noticed her eyes were slowly opening. Her ember eyes blinked a few times and stayed half-opened, scanning the room and then fixating on Lilia. The Priestess stood up, making room for the Witch, who was beginning to move on her own.
“Here’s your cider. Or you can have this water of mine. Or you can have the cider first, so that you become drunk, and then you can have the water, so that you become sober again,” Leo said as he put his cup of water next to the cider on the end table by the bed.
“All things considered, I should get you tea,” he turned and looked at the waiter, “An oolong crate arrived yesterday, yes?”
The waiter gave him a nod.
“And I’ve just had the most brilliant idea of the day. Let’s put goat milk in oolong—”
“The Inventor—she addressed the man—catch!”
The Witch tossed him a gold coin, “You won.”
The Priestess gasped. Where did that gold coin come from?
His eyes widened, he rushed to her side, “So you were conscious!” he exclaimed.
“Kind of…it was…how should I put it? Like…seeing the world from an ethereal viewpoint and I could hear voices…”
“Near-death experience, eh? That would make an interesting topic of research. But rest for now, Ironheart won’t fall because you take a day break,” he assured, nodding to himself.
Ironheart would not fall because the Witch took a day break. The truth could not be truer.
Sir Richard and his knights returned to the castle a few hours later. They could not afford the crusaders find out about their Saturday excursion. The tallest knight—turned out to be the captain of the knights—and Lilia stayed behind to guard the Witch.
Lilia opened her eyes to the morning breeze, the wide open windows and an empty bed where the Witch should have been. She was sent into a state of panic and reflexively smacked her hand on the chest plate of the knight sleeping soundly on a wooden stool next to her.
“The Witch, she is gone!” she exclaimed and rushed to the balcony.
The knight groaned and yawned tiredly.
“Who’s gone, princess?”
The Priestess looked up.
There, sitting on the roof, dangling her feet and humming a lively melody, was the Witch. She was full of energy this morning. She recovered quickly. Looking at her, it would be hard to imagine she had been close to dying just hours before.
How did she get on the roof?
“What are you doing?” Lilia asked.
“Waiting for sunrise, what else? It’s the best part of the day. It’s been ages since I last saw sunrise in Ironheart and here, voila!—the Witch stood precariously on the edge with her arms outstretched—best seat in town!” she said.
Lilia chuckled. Sure, this woman was the evil Black Witch, who would believe her?
“Don’t call me “princess”. Tell me your name and I’ll let you call me Lilia.”
“Eliot. It’s Eliot,” the Witch said, “I know your name from Father Felacia already. Just between us, there’s no shadow-eating hex that requires a person’s name. Not that I know of any…” she shared.
“So you know my father then?
“He was a friend, we were close.”
That was not surprising. The relationship between the bishop of Ironheart and the Black Witch was noted in history books. He was the mediator, the middleman between the Witch and the Church.
“How close?” Lilia pressed. Not close enough to save his life, she suspected.
“I would be your stepmother had he asked,” the Witch said, acting giddy and flustered.
For the love of God, that escalated too quickly.
“But, but he’s over sixty…” that put him way past the age for courtship.
The Witch laughed, “Dear, if you think I’m twenty four because I look twenty four, you’re off by a figure.”
When Lilia thought about it, the Black Witch of Ironheart was first mentioned in the context of forty years ago and in the said record, she was described as a young woman in her twenties. Nowadays, there were few records of witches as most of them had been lost in the aftermath of the witch hunts. And in front of the Priestess then was the last person in Ashlora who could answer her questions about witches.
“Don’t witches age?” her curiosity was intrigued.
“Haven’t met any other witches so I can’t tell, I know I don’t.”
Okay, probably not that question.
“Don’t you want to know why I killed him in the end?
“Knowing my father, did he reject your advance?”
Eliot flinched, “That hurts!” she squealed, and she said bitterly: “He did but that’s not it. Quite the contrary, that saved his life.”
“So what did happen in the end?”
“It’s a long story.”
“But you didn’t kill him, right?”
“What kind of idiot would admit killing someone? Would you take my word for it that I didn’t kill him? You wouldn’t, would you?” the Witch snapped at Lilia, “You were doing fine. You started with a casual question, you lured me in false sense of safety, you built trust, and then you asked that one silly question that has your hidden agenda written all over it.”
Someone knocked on the door. It was the waiter from last night. Unwittingly, his entrance saved Lilia from a tough situation.
Morgan served them breakfast: bacons, omelets, breads and three glasses of cider; all paid in full by the Baron. “Ah, Miss—,” the man stretched his arm up in the air, handing the dish of omelets to the Witch on the roof.
“Eliot, call me Eliot”, she said.
“—Ms. Eliot, the Inventor tells me to give you the lantern, I’ll leave it on the table,” and the waiter pointed her to a strange mechanical-looking lantern on the end table by the bed, “He asks you not to tell anyone he made it,” the man added.
He left without asking what the Witch was doing on the roof.
“Let’s talk about something else. I have been wondering…why are you called the Black Witch? Does black have something to do with shadow?”
Eliot burst into laughter.
“You see, people usually call mages by the color of their element: blue mage for water, red mage for fire, white mage for light. You are a white mage, aren’t you?”
“But witchcraft doesn’t have any elemental favorites. Witchcraft has a little bit of everything. If witches were called out by elements, we would all be rainbow witches. So, witches are called out by appearance. It’s mostly personal preferences but we do try not to cause any confusion with other witches,” the Witch explained.
“So you like wearing black?”
Eliot shook her head, “Purple suits me better but the darker shades of purple end up looking like black in the Dark Forest…”
Her voice trailed off. She stood up again, precariously as always, closing her eyes and taking a deep inhale of the fresh morning air.
“It’s always like that in the Dark Forest”, and she resumed in melancholy, “The day is dull and gray. The night is eerie and black. And it’s always a relief to see sunrise. If by a rare chance the glasses of my window reflect a ray of light in my eyes, which will, inevitably, wakes me from my rest,” the strength of her words rose triumphantly, “I will climb to the top of the highest tree in the forest and look at the sun rising. And in that moment, I’ll tell myself: “You made it, Eliot. You made it another day!”…”
And she pointed at the sun dawning upon Ironheart, drafting every corner of the majestic city golden. Somewhere in the distance, a lone rooster crowed. Nearby, the faint sweeping sound of a vendor’s broom at the marketplace stirred life into the dead silence of early dawn.
There was a short dramatic pause.
“Thank you, Lilia, I made it another day!” she softly whispered.
*First revision “Burden of Proof” and November 2015 revision “Golden Liquid, Red Cider” both featured the arrival of the party at Brown’s boulder. These parts are now moved to chapter 4.
*This revision is the latest as of June 2016.