< The Coming of the Ronsardi
The Coming of the Ronsardi

by

A. J. Kenning




Spring of the year 477

They came to ask for help. No one ever came to the Tower of Storms for anything else, despite the fact that the Black Witch very rarely helped anyone. They came because they were desperate, and desperate people do desperate things.

But, despite their desperation, the Tower of Storms gave them pause. The tower always gave outsiders pause, since everything about it was entirely beautiful -- the brightly-colored stonework, the fine furnishings, the incredible frescoes covering the walls. Everything. Which was just all so unexpected, not to mention somehow... wrong. Wrong because, having heard all the fell stories about the Black Witch of Westlund, people rather expected something... else. Especially since most people associated beauty with openness and invitation.

Yet despite its beauty, visitors were unwelcome at the Tower of Storms. It was a point that wasnít made through appearances, but was rather made through more subtle means. Means such as the fact that guests were taken to a lounge that contained only one sitting couch -- a couch that was always already occupied by the towerís owner.

And then there was the goblin doorman. That creature always did its best to frighten visitors away before they ever saw its mistress. And being a goblin, it was quite skilled at frightening people.

But these men were desperate -- desperate enough to endure all of the goblin's various leers, and follow the creature up the stairs to the gold-inlaid doors that led into the lounge.

Slowly, the goblin reached up and opened both doors at once. "The mistress waits within," it rasped. Then it hobbled off.

And the two men paused for one more moment, in order to gather their courage, before crossing that final threshold.

*

The Black Witch was a woman of black -- tight black dress, soft black gloves, high black boots, long black hair, and sharp black eyes. Everything about her appearance fit her role as a woman of wealth and power. However, her voice entirely lacked the lisp of the refined female aristocrat. Instead, it was earthy, and quite foreign. And neither was the Black Witch demure, as any proper aristocratic lady should be. Rather, she was frequently cross. Or at least she was whenever she was around other people.

As usual when meeting guests, she was seated daintily upon her sitting couch, her hands placed flat upon the cushions to either side of her, while she gazed unkindly at the two men standing before her. "You havenít yet told me anything interesting."

The two men were from lands far distant, and were dressed in fancifully dyed woolens, one of them with the yellow cap of a lordís messenger perched precariously upon his head. His fellow was a simple bearer, though one who worked in a lordís household, and not of the sort usually met on the street.

The messenger had sunk down to one knee. And he stayed kneeling, trembling. (But then, he had been trembling ever since the front door had opened to a goblin.) "Please, Wiccandi! Will you not hear us?"

In answer, the Black Witch turned her head away.

The messenger sucked at his teeth. "Please, Wiccandi. The Ronsardi Bandits press us more and more every year. I simply cannot tell you how many people have died. The number is uncountable."

The Black Witch glanced at him from out of the corner of her eyes. "You traveled through the village of Westlund. I am sure they told you my price."

The messenger cleared his throat. "That we simply can not give, Wiccandi. Instead, we are prepared to offer you a kingís ransom."

She chuckled briefly. "I have no need for money. Truly, there is only one thing that I want."

The messenger got up to his feet, and frowned sadly. "Only a fool would accept such a price as you ask for."

The Black Witch shrugged a shoulder. "Then only a fool will receive my help."

*

Summer of the year 581

Much had changed with the passage of a century, and the Black Witchís wardrobe and furnishings had changed with it. But the Black Witch herself had changed not at all.

The ambassador all but whimpered when he came upon the goblin. Yet he swallowed his fear, and followed the creature to the lounge of the Black Witch, where he quickly became quite incensed at his low treatment -- his high position having accustomed him to far better.

But he swallowed that down as well, and said, "Wiccandi, please understand, the enemy has already claimed vast tracts of land in Dorwinshire and Kavelston -- an unfortunate fact, but a fact which we have come to accept. We have made many treaties with them to acknowledge this. However, they have now begun raiding both west and north from out of those claimed lands -- and they murder all who cross their path." He spread his hands in an opening gesture, and bowed his head. "Wiccandi, for the sake of your fellow Angrish, for the sake of kindness and morality, for the sake of all of the children who have been killed...help us to stop these Ronsardi bandits."

The Black Witch leaned back slightly on her sitting couch and smiled. "You know my price, I am sure."

The ambassador took his finely tailored but somewhat worn vest in his hands and gritted his teeth angrily. "If you will not do it for the sake of humanity, Wiccandi, then do it for the sake of the Law. These Ronsardi have broken countless treaties, and go right on breaking them. We need you to teach them to respect the laws of the world."

"And I shall do so... when you pay my price."

The ambassador swallowed down his rising anger, because it was the Black Witch that he was speaking to. "No one would pay such a price, Wiccandi. No one. Name something -- name anything else."

The Black Witch turned her head half away and raised her nose into the air. "There is only one thing that I want."

"Please, be reasonable, Wiccandi! If only for your own sake." He straightened up to his full height. "If you do not help us, then you are going to find these bandits at your very door!"

She leaned back. "And what does it matter to me which bandits rule these islands, hmm? Theirs or yours?"

"Huh." The ambassador sharply slapped his gloves against his palm. "Then... it seems that we have nothing else to discuss."

"Apparently not."

*

Summer of the year 647

The goblin led a small man into the Black Witchís lounge, a room that had changed much in two hundred years. Always, the Tower of Storms was at the height of fashion, and the loungeís furnishings changed almost yearly. But the Black Witch herself had changed not at all.

The newcomer was a balding man dressed in finely tailored robes that had long ago seen better days. "I am Earl Owain, the Lord of Drisdon." Drisdon was a town only a half-dayís travel from Westlund. "Wiccandi," he said, and sighed. "The Ronsardi are at our very doorstep." He sighed again, and this time at some length. "We are prepared to meet your price."

"Ah, good." The Black Witch flashed a small smile. "Well... there is a child in your town who would do for me quite nicely -- Liloi Gwernstochtor. So, if you would be kind enough to bring her here? Then we can make a conclusion to our agreement."

The lord was made quite uncomfortable learning just how well the Black Witch knew the people of his town. Yet, after a few moments, he simply accepted it as fact. He had little choice. "And you will then... fulfill your end of the bargain?"

"The child will have to be trained a little first, of course. I couldnít possibly take somebody completely green into such a situation. That would just be... wrong. Yet, you can fully expect that within a yearís time, this group of raiders will be raiding no longer."

The lord visibly didnít appreciate the delay, but this, too, he accepted. "Very well. And ... thank you, Wiccandi."

"One last thing, Earl Owain -- do you want these raiders frightened away, or dead?"

The lordís face tightened in discomfort and irritation at having to answer such a dishonorable question. "Whatever you like, Wiccandi."

"Then I will kill them. It is easier."

*

At a knock, the goblin opened the front door. And there, standing in the doorway, was a young girl of about fifteen years -- gangly, red-haired, and freckled. Behind her, at a short distance, stood Earl Owain, a firm, stony expression upon his face, and with his hands trembling a little whenever he wasnít focused upon them.

"Yeeeeeshh?" the goblin asked, and grinned toothily.

The lord placed a hand on the girlís back and pressed her forwards a few stumbling steps. "This is our part of the bargain, as promised."

The girl glared back at the lord in both anger and fear (mostly fear, though -- fear of what was to come), but resolutely took another step forward on her own, crossing the threshold.

The goblin peered up at the girl, and then sniffed her deeply. "Liloi?"

"No," the lord replied, and with a strange amount of firmness for such a small comment. "This is my own daughter, Briant." He looked away. "I -- I could not do this -- ask this of one of my people. So, I made the sacrifice myself. And it is done." His voice, despite his words, revealed that this was something that he was requesting, and not something that he could just make happen.

The goblin closed one eye, and opened the other very wide. "Mmmmm?"

"She is yours."

"Mmm."

Earl Owain coughed weakly. "Good day to you." And he gave a lost, sorrowful glance to his daughter, then strode firmly away down the walk.

Briant turned to the goblin, and took a long, quivering, steadying breath.

*

The Black Witch was none too pleased when she learned of the girlís substitution. And the goblin, through experience, ducked long before the vase went arcing into the wall. (The throw had gone nowhere near the creature, but it liked to be sure.) "Curse that man! How did he know that the Goddess has wyrded me to accept all gifts of personal sacrifice?"

"I not know, mistresh," the goblin rasped.

The Black Witch frowned down at the vase shards for a moment longer. Then: "Oh well. Bring in the girl, Bobby. Letís at least see what weíve got."

"Yessh."

A few minutes later, Briant stepped into the lounge, and curtsied.

The Black Witch gazed at her for an uncomfortably long time. "Well. She will have to do, I suppose."

*

Autumn of the year 647

In those first few days that Briant was in the Tower of Storms, about the only kinds of work that the Black Witch gave her to do were dusting, mopping, and fetching things from the town market. Briant, being of noble family, knew nothing of cleaning or of buying, and so she did poorly at both kinds of tasks.

And she came to be quite resentful of the position that she had been placed in, and muttered violently to herself whenever her limbs grew tired, or whenever she stubbed a toe, or whenever she was assigned a new and unfamiliar task.

Yet she was also afraid of the Black Witch, and so she said nothing of this resentment to the woman, and only went about her work desultorily instead. Or, anyway, as desultorily as she dared.

The Black Witch did, of course, notice this lack of effort on Briantís part, but she said nothing about it. Nothing, that is, until Briant chanced to, in her carelessness, break one of the Black Witchís collection of vases. (By chance, it was actually one very like the vase that the Black Witch had hurled into the wall not two weeks earlier.)

At the sound of breakage, the Black Witch came striding into the room, placed her hands on her hips, and glared down at Briant, who was hurriedly gathering up the broken shards.

"Curse you, girl! Do you not have a mindful bone in your body?"

"It was an accident."

"Damn it! I know it was an accident! Do you think I would ever believe for a moment that you broke one of my priceless vases on purpose?" Her eyes flashed. "What I am telling you is that there shouldnít be any such accidents! And if you were at all mindful, there wouldnít be."

Indignation that had been building up in Briant for days now suddenly consumed her, and she threw her gathered shards to the ground, and leapt to her feet. "Do you think I wanted this? Any of this? No!" She came to a sudden decision, and dusted off her hands. "I am going home."

The Black Witchís voice was strange as she said, "The sooner you come to think of this as your home, girl, the better off weíll all be."

"This will never be my home!" Briant shrieked, and started to flee.

"You can never go back," the Black Witch called after her.

Briant paused with her hand on the door. "Are you going to stop me from leaving, then?"

The Black Witch removed her hands from her hips, and smiled sweetly. "Not at all."

*

The next morning, Briant returned to the Tower of Storms, this time under a full escort of guards, and with her hands tied behind her back. And she gave the Black Witch a bitter and angry smile as the guard captain slit her bonds, and then shoved her forward into the tower.

The door closed behind her. "Well?" Briant demanded, expecting some sort of I-told-you-so-speech.

Yet, instead, the Black Witch simply gestured softly at the mop and bucket, which had obviously been placed next to the door, waiting for her.

*

Fall of the year 647

For the first time ever, Briant had been invited into the Black Witchís casting chamber. The room was not at all what she had expected. There were no bubbling cauldrons, no dark mirrors, and no crowding of jars of various pickled animal parts. Instead, it was a neatly organized room, with several hanging plants, lots of jars of dried herbs, and several pots filled with various earths. And there was also a tray of precious gems, though nothing of any particular value -- and Briant, as an ex-noblewoman, had an eye for precious stones.

There was one thing about the room, though, that she had expected -- the spellcircle. It was in the southwest corner, not particularly ornate, just a simple, perfectly made circle, embedded into the floorboards, somehow, even though it looked to have been fashioned from chalk.

The Black Witch stepped into the circle, knelt down, produced a piece of chalk, and began adding an inner ring, with designs interspersed between the new circle and the old. She did this entirely freehand, yet, even so, both the circle and the designs were perfectly formed. Briant didnít know if there was magic involved in that, or if she was simply watching someone of great skill.. But either way, she found it to be something entirely entrancing to watch, despite the fact that it was her tormentor doing it.

Intent upon her work, the Black Witch ignored Briant completely, even though the work occupied her for a couple of hours. After so many weeks in the Black Witchís service, though, Briant was more than used to such treatment. She found herself a seat upon a stool out of the way, and simply stayed there, growing increasingly bored, but remaining silent.

Until: "A piece of quartz, girl," the Black Witch demanded, and stuck out her hand, extending it behind her and out over the lines of her spellcircle.

Briant glanced up, but made no move to fulfill the Black Witchís request.

"Well?" the Black Witch demanded.

Briantís lips twitched nervously, but her spine was aristocratically rigid as she said, "I will not help you with your black witchery."

The Black Witch smiled. "Come now, girl. You are not helping me with my witchery; you are helping me not to have to cross this room seven thousand times this day."

Briant sniffed, being quite above such reasoning.

The Black Witch shrugged a shoulder. "Well, girl, you can either help me here, or you can go back to cleaning the tower. Bobby tells me that the Stableman has been missing for the last couple of days, and the stables are in need of mucking out. You can start there." Which wasnít at all one of Briantís normal tasks, yet it was just the sort of thing that the Black Witch liked to punish her with whenever anger struck -- as it so often did. "Itís your choice, girl."

Briant made a sour face as she went over to the gem tray, picked out a piece of quartz, and handed it over.

*

That the Stableman was missing was not at all surprising. He frequently went missing. And there was always much speculation all around over whether or not he was going to return, this time. But, he always did. As he had done for centuries.

*

Winter of the year 648

It was a harsh winter, and the mephits rode down from the mountains on the fierce storm winds, and wreaked their havoc upon the town of Westlund. But Westlunders were well used to dealing with those bothersome creatures, and these days, the mephits rarely managed to accomplish any real significant damage before they were slain or driven away.

However, when one of the fiercer storms arrived, Bobby had carelessly left one of the larger windows unshuttered, allowing a mephit to enter the Tower of Storms. And the Black Witch happened to be shut up in her spellchamber, involved in a deep trance, which left her completely unaware of the intrusion, when otherwise she would have known instantly.

Briant had come running when she heard all of the crashing and breaking -- something that she definitely wouldnít have done if she had even suspected that the Black Witch might be the cause of all of the noise. When the Black Witchís temper was that bad, everyone knew that it was best to stay far out of her sight. Briant had learned that quickly enough.

The noise of destruction continued, and so it was easy to follow the sound to its source --which turned out to be the library. And when Briant opened the door, she was nearly knocked into unconsciousness by an ice-laden book sent falling from above. However, she managed to leap out of the way in time, and the book crashed to the floor instead, shattering into a million pieces.

Briant looked up, and found herself facing a squat, mean-looking, ice-blue creature with leathery wings, wings that were holding it aloft next to the highest shelves. And she immediately knew the creature for what it was, even though she had never seen one before in her life. But then, it was not a hard thing to guess -- there was nothing in the world like a mephit. And she cowered.

Mephits were small, unintelligent beings, but they were quite deadly to anyone that couldnít protect themselves against the creaturesí magics. And so, Briant was now very much in danger of her life.

As for the library itself -- the Black Witch wasnít much of a reader, and so there wasnít much to it. Yet now, there was even less -- the mephit was making quick work of anything that came into its reach. And books were now strewn all across the floor, many in shards, but others simply rent asunder by claws.

"There must be magic here," the mephit screeched as it angrily froze another tome and tossed it over its shoulder. "There must be magic here. There must be magic here. There must be magic here." Screaming it as if it were a mantra.

Yet the creature also noticed Briant leaping about on the floor, and when its latest conquest failed to be what it wanted, it swooped down on top of her. Stopping with its face pressed right up to hers, it shrieked, "You! You own Magic, yes?" But the creature didnít wait for her to answer. "Yes, you do. You give Magic to Seevil, yes? Seevil need Magic. Seevil need absorb magic. Seevil need become great Ice Elemental. Become ruler. You give Magic. Yes?"

"W-w-what?"

"You give Seevil Magic now! Seevil not like other of his kind. He not have patience!" (Mephits were not at all creatures known for their patience.) "You not pretend be stupid. Me know you powerful sorceress, own entire tower, rule all land around with iron fist. Me take Magic now, or me hurt you first and then take. Make choice now!"

Briant was shaking badly, but she kept her eyes on the mephit. "All -- all right." She took a long breath. "But -- you must know that a sorceress doesnít keep any of her power in her library. So, let me take you to the lounge, where all of my powerful magics are."

The mephit hissed. "You lie! You try trick Seevil! Seevil angry!" It gnashed its teeth at her. "Seevil knows sorcerers keeps their magics in Great Libraries. Now, you give Seevil Magic. Now!"

"N-no, really. Thereís nothing here. Just that old bottle on the table, and thatís nothing youíd want."

The mephit glanced over to the middle of the room, where a decanter filled with a thick, smoky liquid was placed in the center of an end table. "You lie again! Again! Me kill you right now!" Its voice ended in a hissing screech. Yet then it glanced greedily over at the decanter once more. "But, first Seevil find out what in bottle. Me grow strong, and smart. And then me kill you, and everyone around you."

Wings flapping madly, the creature swooped down and snatched the decanter off of the table, and carried it up into an upper corner of the room. There, it lifted the stopper and sniffed.

"Mmm. It smell gooood. But it only smell like liquor to Seevil."

"Thatís because that is all it is. Very rare and expensive and -- very important to me for a special reason, but only liquor all the same."

"You lie! You lie! You lie! You lie! I trust nothing you say, ever again! This bottle very important. It be very magical. It be everything Seevil want. It make Seevil strong. You try trick Seevil, but you not smart enough. Me drink all of magical potion, and then you be afraid."

It started to drink. And it actually did manage to down all of the contents, barely, before the decanter slipped from its fingers and crashed to the floor, the last few droplets of brandy spraying across the rug. Then it began to swoon, trailing strange patterns through the air.

At which point Bobby at last arrived, bounding into the room. And the goblin immediately shrieked over the damage done to the library. Then he noticed the mephit, who was, at that moment, performing lazy circles through the center of the room, up near the ceiling.

Bobby loped across the floor, and in one mighty leap -- jaw extended, saliva dripping -- caught the mephit from out of the air. Much as Briant had seen him catching bats, as he occasionally did late at night.

The mephit struggled to escape, but there was nothing that it could do against the strength of a goblinís jaw. And it was soon gone from this existence.

*

Not long after Bobby had explained everything to the Black Witch, she came and confronted Briant. "That was very quick thinking, girl. And clever. You just might do for me very nicely, after all."

Briant frowned. "Whatever do you mean, mistress? I hardly need to be clever in order to clean up after you."

The Black Witch was almost offended by Briantís comment, but she was too amused by the girlís ignorance. "My, my. They never told you why they sent you to me, did they?"

"Of course they did, mistress. I am to be your servant. They told me very explicitly."

"Oh, not at all." The Black Witch laughed gently. "You are to be my apprentice, girl." She walked over to the window, set her hands upon the sill, and gazed out. "When they sent you to me, instead of the girl I chose, I thought that they had figured out a way to work around our agreement, and had sent me the least Talented among them."

"Oh. But, why would they do that?"

The Black Witch smiled grimly to herself as she continued to gaze out of the window. "Because, girl, they want me to die here without an heir. But they were wrong even in that, because it is the knowledge that must be passed down, not the skill. The skill can wait for a later hour." Abruptly, she turned around and looked at Briant. "Yet, they have given me someone with intelligence. And maybe even with Talent, as well -- who knows? I could not have hoped for anything better. I was going to settle for that Liloi girl, but you might be just precisely what I really wanted."

Briant ducked her head away. "Mistress, I donít know that I want to... "

One side of the Black Witchís mouth curled. "Itís not your choice to make, girl."

"But..."

"Hmph. Youíre probably best out of that place, anyway. A girl like you, they were probably already beginning to force you to hide your intelligence. Especially if you had a brother."

Briant ducked her head even further. "I have two brothers. But it wasnít like... "

The Black Witch smirked. "Yes, you are very lucky to be out of that life, girl. Even if you donít know it yet. Believe me, I know."

*

Spring of the year 648

Briant was awoken, and far too early in the morning, by a shout from Bobby, right in her ear. "You, come. Mistress want you. You pack quickly, for long journey. I come, too. But I always packed. You, hurry. Hurry hurry." Then he bounded on out of the room.

As the Black Witch and her two servants set off down the road, Briant finally got a chance to ask where they were going.

The Black Witch shaded her eyes and looked off down the road, apparently at something that no one else could see. "Weíre going to go and kill those bandits, as I promised I would do."

"Finally," the goblin said. "Yum-yum."

Briant was thoroughly disgusted by the goblinís comment. Yet, she was much more nervous than disgusted -- nervous about this journey. And increasingly so with every step that they took down the road.

The Black Witch glanced down at her in much amusement. "Donít worry, girl. Youíve got a good head for danger; youíll do fine. Other than that, just stay out of the way."

"All right."

*

Several days into their journey, Briant ventured to ask, "Just how are we going to find these bandits, mistress?"

"Oh, theyíll be easy enough to find. Raiders always leave deep tracks." Yet, there was a strange lilt to the way that she had said the word "tracks".

And, three days later, they came across a spring seeping lazily out of the ground. A small pool had settled in nearby, surrounded by maple trees and ivy. Peaceful -- normally. Yet, now there was a nasty smell about the place, detectable from a long way off. The smell of rot. The smell of dead birds and dead fish and a dead woman, all mingled together, all surrounding the pool and spring.

Briant had seen the Black Witch angry -- lots of times, actually -- but she had never seen her enraged before. And seeing the look that had now come upon her mistress, all that Briant wanted to do was to scamper away and hide. Yet she braved it out, because she had her pride.

The goblin, however, did not. And he was long gone.

The Black Witch approached the spring as if it were something to sneak up upon and kill. She stopped at the very edge, and tested the water with her fingers, brushing her dampened fingertips across her tongue. And the sour look that came to her lips said very clearly what she had discovered.

Briant looked away then, but all that she saw was more death -- a homestead with a well, off in the distance, and more sights unspeakable. Immediately, she wanted to turn away from this sight, too. Desperately. But there was no guarantee that any other direction wouldnít contain something even worse. And so, instead, she simply shut her eyes.

"Hmph," the Black Witch said quietly to herself. "Perhaps I actually should have involved myself in this affair earlier, if this is how they are going to fight their war. But I suppose that no matter how a war is fought, it all eventually comes to the same end, anyway."

*

"Where are we?" Briant asked, the journey having taken them far away from the lands that she knew.

"The Sleeping Hills," the Black Witch replied.

They had been following the trail of death ever eastwards, until it had ended in a vale surrounded by downs. A soft mist tapered across the hills, and the wind there was all but still.

"Why has no one settled here?" Briant asked. "It seems very beautiful. And the soil looks to be quite rich." The words of someone from a farming community.

"This is a burial place for the Filidda," the Black Witch replied.

Briant scrunched up her brows. "The who?"

"The Anaxi, I believe you call them." Anaxi -- a word meaning, "Those who came before."

"No..." Briant was all but crying from the terror that had swept over her. Terror of the Filidda and of cemeteries mingling together to form a unique kind of horror.

The Black Witch smiled. "And that reaction is the reason why no one has settled here."

Briant existed only in her terror for a time. But, after many minutes had passed, she regained enough control of herself to ask, "Yet, if this is a burial place of the Filidda, how can the Ronsardi have made a camp here?" And she shivered violently, just thinking about sleeping among these hills.

Bobby loped ahead of her, and cackled. "These Ronsardi are like me. They no fear Filidda." He rubbed his belly. "Me actually like Filiddas. Very tasty bones."

The Black Witch looked at the goblin askance, which caused him to meekly retreat back behind the two women. Then she said, "More likely, the Ronsardi donít actually know anything of the Filidda at all." And, having said that, she suddenly became thoughtful. And, a few moments later, an evil glint came to her eyes.

*

The raidersí encampment wasnít too much further into the vale, and so it was only a little after dusk when they reached the outskirts of it. Then, once they had caught their first sight of the campfire, the Black Witch signaled for them to step back away.

"Girl, I want you to go into the camp and occupy the bandits for a few minutes."

"What?" Briant exclaimed. "But... how?"

"I donít know. I donít care. Talk to them. Fight them. Sing to them. Do whatever. Just keep them occupied, and Iíll handle everything else."

Briant looked off in the direction of the camp, and gulped.

The Black Witch subtly shook out her long, dark, hair. "Donít worry, girl. Youíll have Bobby to watch over you."

Briant made a sour face, not at all impressed.

And the goblin just grinned.

*

About two-dozen roughened men were at the camp. Fifteen of them were warriors, and the rest looked to be servants of one sort or another.

For the most part, the Ronsardi were what Briant had been expecting bandits to be -- loud, crude, violent, small-minded, and cruel. There was a foreignness about them, of course, but nothing particularly unusual.

However, there was one unexpected thing -- there was a certain orderliness to them and to their camp. An orderliness that would have seemed quite strange and foreign to anyone of the Isles who saw it. Yet, anyone from the lands further to the south would instantly have known it for what it was -- the signs of a professional army.

There were only two such armies in all the known world. But that was more than enough for them to have become one of the most hated and feared entities in existence. And anywhere in the south, children would have been gathered, doors would have been closed, and defenses would have been fortified at just the sight of even one of these men.

But the Isles -- isolated by an ocean and their unwelcoming climate -- knew nothing of such armies. Knew nothing of their ways, or their history, or of the terror that they could wreak upon a land and its people.

Yet, on the other hand, the armies also knew almost nothing of the Isles.

Like all of her people, Briant could Walk the land, and so the two sentries -- stationed on either side of the camp -- never saw nor heard a thing as she passed silently between their positions. And so, to the camp, it was as if this pale, grey-cloaked figure was just suddenly among them.

The raiders, who had been having a raucous meal, instantly stilled. They were angry. Frightened. Watchful.

The cloak was thrust aside, and a feminine hand was extended -- pointing. "You who have invaded these lands, spreading your poisons and your death...turn aside from your ways before they consume you and everything that you care for."

There was silence at the camp, for a long time. Then one of the warriors placed his hand upon his hilt, and stood. "Thou knows us not, harlot."

"No. I know you too well. Poisoners of the land. Rapers of the field. And breakers of oaths."

None of those insults were taken particularly well, but the last of them was something else again -- a thrust straight through the heart of the warriors there in the camp. And none took it worse than the standing man. "We never break oath, harlot!"

"Do you now deny that you are breaking your treaties? That your very presence here in Whitecliff breaks treaty. Are you liars, then, too?" This comment didnít go over well with anyone at the camp, servant and soldier alike. Especially since there was all too much truth behind it.

And their spokesman had become quite red in the face as he insisted, "These treaties were made with the heathen. And the word of the heathen means nothing."

The pale figure brought her hand back within her cloak. "I see. And yet, the Ďheathení are keeping their word, while you are not."

Their spokesman clenched his jaw. "The heathen are servants of Evil. This land will be cleansed of Evil! The heathen will either convert, or die. And thee, harlot, will be among the first to die." He drew his sword in one smooth movement, and leveled it at her.

Yet, his men didnít follow his order. Or rather, they didnít even notice his order, because their attentions were all occupied with staring at the surrounding hills, where the spirits of the dead were rising up out of the ground.

The Filidda. Tall, arrogant, beautiful. And utterly without compassion.

And those that had been buried in these misty downs were warriors all, warriors from a warrior people. All had been buried holding their long, narrow swords, and all had arisen with those swords still in their hands. According to legend, the Filidda had wielded their blades with a skill unmatched by any of the peoples that had come after -- and the legend had more than just a little truth to it.

The raiders drew together in a defensive circle, even as the spirits -- as one -- turned and began to move towards them. And the raiders were afraid.

However, despite their fear, they were professionals, and they stood their ground. Their spokesman was the only one who had not entered the defensive circle. Instead, he was still facing the pale, feminine figure. And he now gestured wildly at her with his sword and screamed, "This is all her doing! She is a witch! Kill her! Kill her, and put an end to her Evil! Kill her, and it will end her vile magics!"

Yet, his men were already fighting for their lives, and were, mostly, losing.

And so, their leader took it upon himself to kill the pale figure, alone. He charged forwards, placing his free hand upon a medallion around his neck even as he ran. And he prayed.

While still some distance from the cloaked figure, he slid to a stop, and thrust his hand forwards, still clutching the medallion. "Servant of Evil, burn with the fires of Righteousness!"

Something rushed forwards then, rolling across the ground towards the cloaked figure, something invisible. Yet whatever it was, it caused the air to shimmer occasionally as it moved. And the air in a great, vast wall was now shimmering. shimmering even as it rushed inexorably, unstoppably forwards.

*

As the shimmering air came upon Briant, she accepted that it was going to hit her -- it was far too quick and much too large to be avoided. And she flinched away from it, and clenched her eyes shut. And she screamed, a soft, whimpering scream.

But the shimmering air struck something solid, just before it reached her. Struck it, and was forced to flow around and away, leaving her untouched.

The shimmering kept coming -- constant, powerful. But all of it kept being cast away, just the same. The air nearby became hot, so hot that it became difficult for Briant to breathe, and the grass nearby was immediately lit aflame.

But she was safe.

Eventually, then, she opened her eyes, and discovered that the Black Witch was standing behind her, arm outstretched. And the witch had removed her long, black gloves, thus revealing that her body was covered with tattoos -- the tattoos of the Wiccandi. Ahead of her, the solid object that was blocking the shimmering air was something that was invisible. Or rather, it was only visible because on one side of it the air was shimmering, and on the other it was quite normal.

Beyond that, though, the only thing that she could determine about it was that it was obviously under the control of the Black Witch.

Eventually, the bandit leader lowered the medallion. And, instantly, the heat was gone, except for that created by the grass fires that were now raging. "Vile witches!" he shouted. "Thou art strong in Evil! But I will vanquish thee, even so!"

At which point, a ghostly blade slid into his back, and only great presence of mind allowed him to escape death right then.

He spun around and quickly backed away from the spirit warrior that had come up upon his back. The spiritís ghostly movements were completely soundless as it glided after him and attacked again. And the bandit leader barely managed a parry, slowed as he was by the bloodless wound in his back.

The Black Witch smiled wickedly. "You currently have troubles much more important than us, I think. And so, we will leave you to it. Good day to you, sir."

*

The Black Witch didnít slow their pace until they were well away from the vale. And only once they had slowed down did Briant have enough breath to ask, "Mistress? What that man did was very powerful. What was he? A foreign sorcerer?"

"No," the Black Witch replied. "He was not a caster of any kind. That magic he used... it came from the medallion. It was a gift."

Briant blinked in confusion. "A Ďgiftí?"

"A gifted magic." The Black Witch exhaled slowly. "In this case, crafted a very long time ago by a sorcerer name Zalovar, who made the medallions for his followers, so that any of them could fight against mages, no matter how lacking they were in Talent."

"But how?" Briant asked in utter awe. "How is that even possible?"

"Hmph. It is a quite simply concept, really. A focus object -- in this case, the medallion -- is bonded to a personís blood. And it burns some of this blood, in place of Talent, in order to manifest its magic." Her voice turned darker. "And so, since it burns your blood, there is a chance -- a fairly good chance -- that you will die every time that you use it."

"Uhhk. How horrible. Why would anyone ever even use such a thing?"

The Black Witch increased their pace once more. Behind them, the sounds of fighting had already receded into the far distance. "Zalovar tricked his followers into thinking that they were not casting magic, but rather were channeling the divine through the power of their great faith."

Briant gasped. "How... horrible."

"And he had an explanation for everything. The burning sensation inside their bodies -- that was the feel of divine might surging inside them. The paler skin after making use of the medallion -- that was the body reacting in awe to the sight of the divine. And the occasional sudden death -- that was the unfortunate consequence of frail humanity making use of divine power."

"Thatís just ghoulish." Briant shook her head. "So what happened when his followers found out the truth?"

"Oh, they never did find out the truth. Zalovar took his secret with him to the grave. And his cult didnít long survive his death." The Black Witch forcefully tugged her gloves back on -- far more forcefully than necessary. "I never thought I would personally see such weapons being used. These Ronsardi must be as insane as the Zalovarians were."

"So the Ronsardi were using the same sorts of medallions as the Zalovarians?"

"Probably the very same ones. It may have been more than a thousand years since the Zalovarian Heresy, but Zalovar always crafted his objects to last."

"Does that mean that every single one of those men had a medallion, and could have used it on us?" Briant asked in a strangled, little voice.

"Potentially. If they wanted a very powerful, very short-lived group of warriors. However, no, only their commander had one. Like Zalovar, these Ronsardi seem to have given the medallions only to their most devout, and only for use on special occasions."

"Oh." Briant wrinkled her nose. "But... Wait. ĎSpecial occasionsí? What was special about just me -- Oh."

The Black Witch nodded slowly. "Yes. You seemed to make quite an impression on their commander, girl."

After that, they walked on in silence for a time, until Briant shook herself. "If this Zalovar died with his secret, however do you know about it, mistress?"

The Black Witch kept her gaze fixedly ahead and said nothing more, the fire in her eyes brooking no further questions. And Briant had spent enough time with her mistress by then to know not to challenge that fire.

*

After the two women and the goblin left the vale, no one else came out. Ever.

THE END



A. J. Kenning says: "I live, I write, and I do silly jobs to make ends meet. And there is really nothing else to say about me."

E-mail: tershoa@aol.com or sarjute@hotmail.com

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Lettercol
Or Return to Aphelion's Index page.