The Stone Curse

by

Verna McKinnon




Seda walked through the forest unafraid; a witch has no fear of shadows. Resolute and calm, she continued her pilgrimage deep into the woods, where old spirits slept and trees held their dark secrets with silent serenity.

"Come, Seda, I have been waiting for you," a voice on the wind whispered.

"Iím coming, Valda," Seda answered. The path was burned into her mind, though it had been months since she had visited her teacher. Memories of innocent childhood tormented Seda --learning magic under old Valda, the mystical uses for flower and herb, the mystery of the moon and spells evoked beneath starry skies.

"But Iím no longer innocent," Seda murmured sadly. "Not after what I've done ..."

The trees along the path bent their branches to point the way for her, glowing with the magic that saturated the very air here. A witch mark, evolving from the years Valda lived here, her witchcraft dusting the woods with ethereal residue that built up over time into an overflow. When she was a child, Seda had thought it was fun to live in a place where everything was enchanted.

The crowded forest at last opened to a sunlit meadow, with a small cottage near a spring. The old woman waited for her in the herb garden. She looked the same. Hair white with age, her eyes brown as nuts, tiny body still strong with life.

"Iím surprised to see you, Seda. Itís been a long time." Despite her words, Valda embraced her warmly. "I have a jug of wine chilling in the brook. I think you need it. Iíll cut up some bread and cheese."

"Valda, Iíve done a terrible --"

"Hush. Wine first. It will make your confession easier."

Seda retrieved the bottle from the brook and joined Valda inside, where her mentor was busy slicing bread and cheese. Seda fetched two goblets from the cupboard and filled them. She handed one to Valda, who accepted it eagerly.

"Now, what is this nonsense about?" Valda asked as she arranged the food on the tray and sipped her wine.

"I committed a sin, Valda," Seda whispered. "I did the forbidden. I used the Stone Heart Curse on someone -- and now I must remove it."

"You know the price," Valda warned. "Once cast, that curse cannot be broken. The only way to remove it is for the witch who cast it to take it upon herself." She paused, shaking her head. "There is something I am forgetting -- some exception, some oddment -- no, never mind. Are you certain that you can bear such a burden -- forever?"

"I must do it," Seda said. "I cannot endure this guilt. Ahren fell in love with another woman. In my torment I used the curse on her to punish them both. "

Valda sighed. "Eat something first. Maybe it will heal that penitent brain of yours." She pushed the bread and cheese toward Seda. "Youíre a talented witch -- one of my best students. Donít ruin your life over one mistake. I warned you about following in love with a mortal man. There are many strapping male witches around that would have made better lovers. Faithful lovers."

"I couldnít help it. I loved him," Seda murmured. "We were happy for several years. I thought I had found happiness. When he left me for another, I was heartbroken -- and I used the Curse." Seda broke down and wept.

Valda shook her head. "There is a reason some curses are forbidden. They have nasty consequences and benefit no one, not even the caster. I wonder about the witches that created these spells -- powerful and clever, but surely not wise. Just because you can do a thing, does not mean that you should."

Seda only wept harder, and Valda comforted her, holding her until the sobs subsided. "Now, stop this weeping! Are you truly determined to do this?" Valda asked.

"Yes. I must make it right ... for him," Seda said.

"Why?" Valda asked. "He made things wrong for you. An unfaithful man deserves bitter retribution."

Seda shook her head. "I have made my decision. You must help me. I need a witness, to verify the transference worked."

"Very well," Valda said sadly. "I will go with you -- tomorrow, if you will not change your mind. But I say let them both rot."

"Were you ever in love, Valda?"

Valda laughed. "Yes, and thatís why I say let them rot."

####

The next morning they rose at dawn. Valda put a few wards of protection on her cottage.

"The cottage should be fine, Valda. No one ever ventures into this neck of the woods."

"The squirrels and raccoons do. I donít want them eating my food stores. Sneaky little fuzz balls would steal all my food if I didnít take precautions. Especially since they've soaked up a little magic and are much more clever than they should be."

It took several hours to reach the village, a small community with a number of small, thatched homes and a common well in the center of town. Seda led them to a small, but fine house. Seda knocked and stepped back. A man with a tormented face opened the door.

"Seda, what are you doing here?" he asked gruffly. "Havenít you done enough?"

"Be still, boy," Valda said. "She has come to remove the Stone Curse from your precious beloved."

"Ahren, let me in. I have only come to make things right," Seda begged.

Valda noted Sedaís former love was indeed handsome. Dark-haired with eyes like warm honey, and the muscular build of a warrior, he looked the part of a fairy-tale prince.

He waved them in. "Thank heavens you are here, then. Sheís in the bedroom."

In the bed lay a young woman, golden haired and blooming with youth. Not that Seda was old -- she was young and pretty too. But Seda's beauty was of a gentler, earthy kind, with walnut-brown hair that fell to her hips and soft green eyes.

Valda thought darkly that Ahren was an oaf to reject Seda for this vacant-eyed blonde waif in the bed, before she realized that the curse was the reason for the vapid aura.

"Whatís her name?" Valda asked.

"Elise," Ahren whispered, kneeling by the bed and holding his paramour's delicate hand.

Valda grimaced in disgust. 'Elise' was a common name for the pale beauties that used their soft looks to make it through life. This specimen looked as though she had never suffered so much as mild disappointment in her pampered existence.

Still -- there was no expression or feeling on Elise's flawless face. A stone heart curse was cruel. The victim left with no feelings at all. Hate, love, joy or dislike -- all turned to stone. Only a husk remained that could barely function -- for even the will to live is an emotion, after all -- able to eat only through the efforts of a caregiver to spoon broth and juices for survival.

"I am ready," Seda said, removing her cloak.

Ahren looked up at Seda. "Thank you," he said. "Iím sorry if I caused you pain ... but I love her!"

"You spoke the same words to Seda," Valda added with thorny truth.

"No more quibbling," Seda proclaimed. "I will remove the curse."

Valda pulled Ahren away and made him stand by the window. Seda rose to her power, taking back the wretched curse. Waves of black mist rose from Eliseís body, hovering for a moment, the dark magic shimmering with wicked essence. Seda spoke the final word of mystic power, and pulled the curse out of Elise. It enveloped Seda, its shadow shrouding her whole being, and then was absorbed into her body.

Elisaís face suddenly became animated, and she rose from her bed and cried out, "Ahren!" He quickly embraced his love, tears of joy streaming down their faces.

But then something strange happened. A miracle of sorts -- one that made Valda grin like an imp.

Seda's face twisted in sudden pain as the dark vapors exited her body and evaporated.

"Iím not cursed! Iím wholeÖI still feel," she gasped.

Valda laughed, "Oh, praise be to the all the spirits! Seda, you will not suffer the curse now."

"But how is that possible?" Seda asked.

"Because the victim of the Stone Curse did not truly love Ahren," Valda crowed. "I remember now -- the Curse was meant to draw its strength from the victim's feelings, and Elise must have had none to feed it. Sheís no longer cursed, but you need not suffer the retribution of black magic. Oh, I sometimes love those old curses -- they're so delicately crafted that they unravel when you pluck a single thread."

"And that's a good thing?" Seda asked.

"Even the wisest witch often does things that she wishes to undo," Valda said. "I have stories I can tell you -- later."

Elise had finally absorbed Valda's meaning and was stunned. "But I do love Ahren!" she protested with a pout.

"Iím sure you do, dear." Valda replied sweetly.

Seda shook her head. "And to think I was prepared to --"

"Martyr yourself in the act of the severely retarded when it comes to broken romance. Seda, my dear girl, Elise doesnít really love him. That is the only thing that could have saved you." Valda turned to Elise. "Tell me, how is it you are so immune to the charms of Ahren? Could it be you have loved Ö too many men in your young life?"

Elise angrily retorted, "My past is of no concern to you, witch!"

"But I bet it would concern Ahren Ö especially since you have a reputation for being a whore in your home village."

Elise stomped her foot, "I will admit nothing to you, you haggard old crone. Things are different in the north."

Ahren raised an eyebrow and stepped back. "Elise, what are you saying?"

Elise pouted and said, "Iíve had many men, but that is all past, Ahren. I love you now."

"No you donít," Valda said. She walked up to Elise and pulled back her hair, "Isnít that the mark of the god, Teraza, on your neck? Teraza priestesses have such small tattoos of a snake as a symbol of their devotion. They are also notorious for sleeping with any man for a coin or two, if you call that weak cult a religion --"

"You said you were a virgin," Ahren cried.

"You assumed," Elise said. "I simply didnít correct you. I was young when I joined the order. I left them two years ago. You were so handsome and had a good income and a home. I wanted a husband -- is that so wrong?" She tilted her head down and looked up at him through the golden curtain of her lashes.

"Get out of here," Ahren said coldly, turning his back on her. "Your love was false."

"But Ahren!" she cried.

Seda grabbed her cloak and stormed out of the cottage. Valda followed her, relief evident in each bouncy step that the old woman took.

She caught up with Seda, and took her by the arm. "Calm down now, my child. All worked out well."

"How did you know about Elise?"

"I recognized the tattoo on her neck when she was in bed, thatís all. I simply assumed the rest and let her lies wither from there."

"Iíve been a fool."

"Itís all right, Seda. Weíre all fools when it comes to love."

Ahren ran out of the cottage, calling, "Seda, wait!"

Seda stopped and faced him with cool calm. "What do you want?"

"My beloved Seda Ö my lovely dark witch, can you forgive me?"

A wry smile curled Sedaís lips, "Of course, Ahren. I forgive you. But I donít want you anymore."

Stunned, he stood there open-mouthed as the village idiot. Seda waved her hand and spoke a few magic words.

In the blink of an eye, Ahren was transformed into a fat, squat toad.

"Seda, Iím impressed!" Valda laughed. "I thought you had given up on revenge. How long will you leave him like this?"

"I donít know. A few days -- a few centuries -- I havenít decided."

"I think we need a drink. Does this village have a tavern?"

Seda laughed, "Yes. I think we should get very drunk."

"Thatís the first sensible thing youíve said," Valda said.

They walked away, leaving the toad and the blonde to contemplate their sins.

THE END



© 2005 by Verna McKinnon

Bio: Verna McKinnon has a fondness for tales of wizards, witches and warriors. If you doubt my word, see her stories in Fantasy World Geographic ("Dragon Toast", June 2005), High Fantasy Online ("Red Blades"), Chaos Theory: Tales Askew ("Death's Exile"), and Aberrant Dreams ("Wizard's Apprentice", October 2005). She seems to be less fond of squirrels and raccoons, at least when they find their way indoors ...

E-mail: Verna McKinnon

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