Aphelion Issue 293, Volume 28
September 2023
 
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The Robber Witch

by Murray Eiland




Horlin paced back and forth right outside the great room.

He'd never been one for cities, even one this small. They were too busy for him. He liked the tranquillity that came with his small village not too far away. To put it mildly, he was not one of the gnomes responsible for keeping the village peaceful. Silence meant he could get on with taking things, and it was easier for him to get away with it.

He didn't think that now. He hardly knew what to think. His trickery had gotten him into the city that really did not want him. Now, the little city that others called a town wanted something from him.

The Guild of Merchants had been the ones to approach him. A formal letter was delivered by a liveried team of elves who ran the show. The Guild gave irrevocable promises of safe conduct and great reward. Horlin was waiting patiently for what was to come.

The massive doors opened slowly with a creak. He needed to decide whether to enter. The room was dark, except for torches that illuminated everything in shadows.

"You may enter now, gnome." The unfriendly voice did not sound very welcoming.

He shuffled into the room and tried his best to get a look around. He could see the faces of the elves that called him in. He tried to loosen the lump at the back of his throat. If the shadows were intense in the room, the clouds that fell over the elves were even more intimidating.

"Horlin."

Horlin looked up at one of the elves. Her voice was soft but intimidating. It was the way she stood over him on her podium and simply stared down at his figure. He had to stop himself from taking a step back.

"What is it you summoned me for?" There was silence as he looked at the dozen faces now exchanging glances. He thought it best to keep his language formal.

"We’ve heard you are a thief."

Horlin’s stomach dropped. This was true. He was a thief. He didn’t realize he would face consequences before the Guild of Merchants. Had the village had enough? Had they made a deal with the Guild to get rid of him? Regardless, he decided to answer the question truthfully. He was many things, but he wasn't a liar.

"I might be described that way," Horlin responded.

"We need your help."

Horlin took a step back this time. "My help? With what?"

"Well, we’d like to assume you’re familiar with Elena?"

Horlin’s face scrunched. "The witch?"

The entire roomful of elves nodded somberly in unison. It made Horlin shiver. He always thought the elves carried their noses too high. This group, though, were almost connected together. Could they read minds?

"She's been wreaking nothing but havoc on the lives of all the villagers she comes in contact with."

Horlin snorted. "I know, trust me."

The Guild leader cocked her head to one side and let the tiniest trace of a smile flash across her face. "So, she's found your village?"

"She came into our village and built barriers around the outskirts so we couldn't leave. She demanded money to use the roads—all our gold, silver, and gems. Initially, many gnomes wouldn't stand for it, but she put spells on them, and then, we had no choice. We watched her turn our hidden gold and silver into toads and lizards, and then she turned our hidden gems into insects."

The head Merchant Guild elf nodded again. Horlin decided he’d want to avoid playing a game of cards with these people. Unfortunately, they were impossible to read.

"She's been wreaking havoc on much more than just our city. She must be stopped. It is bad for business."

"What’s that got to do with me?"

"We need someone quiet. Someone who can find Elena's weaknesses. Someone like you."

Horlin threw his head back. "Me? I'm a thief, not a spy."

"Right, but those two things can go hand in hand. We will pay you for this venture; perhaps that will influence your decision."

He hesitated for just a second. "How much?"

"Five thousand in gold."

Horlin had to fight the urge to react—that was a huge amount of money.

"If you successfully get us the information we need, you will get your pay. If you fail, we will deny any deal with you."

Horlin nodded slowly and mulled his options. There was something about the way Guild elves had invited him. Undoubtedly, an elf could have done this job with more success. And why were they willing to pay him so much? He tried not to let his suspicion appear on his face. Hiding emotion was never difficult for him.

If he said yes, and they provided him his money, he could be on his way, but only after he understood what these elves were playing at.

"Alright," he said finally. "I'll do this for you if you pay me half in advance."

"Excellent, we will have 500 for you now. Do you know where the witch resides?"

The Guild had been ready for him to demand something in advance. They answered with a question to prevent further discussion on the money they offered, which was far from the half he asked for. Horlin knew he was being played. "She lives on the abandoned dirt path on the east side of the forest. I was raised being told not to go there."

Horlin stood waiting for them to clarify about the money, but the elves didn’t say anything further. Horlin stood awkwardly for a moment more before realizing they were dismissing him.

As soon as he stepped out of the room, he felt he could breathe again. He was handed a sack on the way out.

There was more to these elves than met the eye. It wasn't just that they'd chosen him to save his village, and no doubt others, from this witch. It was more than that. They didn't seem like regular elves. It may have had something to do with the fact that he was used to seeing so many smiling elves. These seemed more somber. Something was off, and if he was going to find Elena, he needed to learn more about the Guild while he did so.

Horlin spent the rest of his day collecting supplies. He could live in the forest for as long as it took to uncover this witch’s secrets.

Walking through the woods brought back memories of being a young child. He remembered the warnings of all the elders in his village. Children were never allowed past the point he'd reached now. He laid his things down and narrowed his eyes at the small, dark hut that was the witch's cottage. He sat but never broke eye contact with the house. All there was to do now was wait.

As much as he hated to admit it, the elves were right. This ability to spy came with being a thief. So much of the conniving that came with stealing was waiting for or creating the perfect moment.

The witch only slept in the early morning hours, which he used to his advantage after weeks of waiting and watching.

The first thing he'd watched her do in those first weeks was travel. He attempted to keep pace with her horses. There were three of them, and they were attached to a shabby carriage. She took them between three different roads.

It was an odd sight, really. These were strong, robust, and swift horses. They looked like they didn't belong with the carriage she used for transport.

"Perhaps they don't," he whispered to himself. It was night, the witch was gone, and he was staring at her empty horse stable, mulling over these facts.

Horlin decided that he would inspect the horses in the morning when Elena was sleeping.

He didn't sleep. It felt childish, but he still clung to a fear of the witch, and the elves' warning continued to ring in his head: "If you fail, we will deny any deal with you." He wanted that money. He wanted it badly.

Despite his lack of sleep, he began feeling more awake and alert. His nerves had turned to exhilaration. They had to. If he let his nerves win, he was sure to slip up.

When dawn began to peek its head over the horizon, the witch returned. He crept closer to the forest's edge and watched as she stretched and yawned. She glided into her home with hypnotizing ease and closed the door. He waited. Ten minutes went by then twenty. He crept out of hiding when she was asleep and snuck into the stables. Despite his intrusion, the horses made no effort to whine or fight him.

"Well trained," he mumbled under his breath.

He patted their shiny coats to gain their trust before settling on a black horse to inspect. Nothing on them indicated they belonged to anyone. Their skin was perfect; no branding iron had ever been near them. He looked down at its hoof, which had not seen attention for some time. In the dust of the stable, something gold caught his eye.

Horlin patted the horse down again before reaching down to see what was on the ground.

It was a horseshoe that looked to be made entirely of gold.

"What do we have here?" he murmured as he picked it up.

He inspected the horses one more time and found all had the same style of shoes. "You seem to belong somewhere important."

Horlin slipped the horseshoe into a satchel he was carrying and scurried back into the safety of the woods.

Before he could bring himself to leave, he watched the cottage. He watched it for any signs that the witch might have woken up and was waiting for a trespasser. There was nothing. He finally left the woods and returned to his village to see what the golden shoe could tell him.

As he entered familiar surroundings, he began to watch the people around him. He received glares from faces that knew him as at least a suspect in stealing their goods. Many just chose to ignore him. That was fine by him.

Finally, he'd made it to his destination. It was in the working part of the village, on the outskirts. He stood before the blacksmith's door, unsure whether to approach the situation with a smile. Maybe he shouldn't even bother.

Regardless, he didn't get the chance to decide. Instead, the door swung open, and a burly gnome with a large belly burst through the door and nearly ran into Horlin.

"Oh, I'm terribly—oh. It's you. What do you want?"

Horlin sighed. He'd worked for the blacksmith as a teenager, but that was when he'd begun to get sticky fingers, and his first victim happened to be the very man he had worked for.

"I need your help," Horlin said.

The blacksmith snarled. "Help? What gives me any good reason to help you with anything?"

Horlin produced the golden horseshoe for the blacksmith. "Some elves have tasked me with finding Elena the witch’s weakness. I've been spying on her home for weeks. She has horses, and this is what they are wearing."

The blacksmith looked down in thought. His face twisted before it softened. "Come inside."

Horlin followed the blacksmith inside and watched as he sat down. "It is a horseshoe from the king's stables."

Horlin’s head jerked back in surprise. "The king's stables! Are you sure?"

The blacksmith nodded. "Only the king has horseshoes this extravagant for his horses. You said the witch has horses with these shoes?"

"Yes. The horses are extremely well-behaved, very well groomed too."

"I hope you know what you’re getting yourself into, lad."

"I don't know what I've got myself into. All I know is that I will get money from it."

The blacksmith snorted in response, and his judgment was apparent.

"Look, Alden," Horlin reached into his bag, placed a few gold pieces on the counter, and retracted the horseshoe. "I'm sorry. Okay?"

"I’ll accept the gold for what you owe. As for this thing you are involved with, be careful and leave me out of it."

Horlin nodded once more and exited the shop. "I'll see you around."

"I hope not."

Horlin closed the door.

It's not that gnomes aren't welcome at the palace; it’s just that it's not a place they generally find themselves. Grandeur is not something gnomes care about. Unless, of course, that gnome is Horlin.

Horlin stared open-mouthed at the extravagance of it all as he walked up to the palace. He cared little for the soaring architecture. It was the portable things that counted. There was enough gold leaf on the wall to make several men rich. Rich fabrics abounded, literally fit for a king. However, there were well-armed guards everywhere. The more portable something was, the more guards there were. Horses, by definition, were the most mobile of all. Horlin couldn't just waltz in and ask to see the royal stables. No, that would require an explanation. But, of course, that would take too much time, and more people than he would like would know he was looking.

The stables were next to the palace. If he could simply move undetected, he would have no problems with guards. He decided to see how far he could get. He needed to plan. However, as he attempted to walk toward the stables, he became increasingly aware that the area was almost completely deserted. There were no guards, and only a few people were there to keep things in order.

No wonder the witch got those horses.What was the palace playing at? Better yet, what was the witch playing at?

He made it to the stables, where he quietly inspected the well-behaved palace horses. Sure enough, they wore the same horseshoes as the horses in Elena's stable.

He'd seen her switch out one or two horses in his time spying on her. He had yet to understand why. Why, of all the horses available to a witch, did she choose to steal from the king's stables? Maybe it wasn't his place to understand.

Regardless, he marked the horses, one after the other, with a small cut on the tip of their horseshoes. All was fine until the last one whinnied loudly, and footsteps could be heard.

He did the only thing he thought sensible at that moment. He hid in the closest barrel he could find and did not move.

It smelt like manure, and he did his best not to gag or make a single noise despite it feeling like his nostrils were on fire.

"Do you see anyone here?"

"No. It’s just the horses."

"Something’s been spooking them lately. I don’t know what it is."

"Wouldn't kill the king to get some guards over here."

The conversation was muffled from within the barrel, but Horlin did his best to listen in, hoping there would be some helpful information.

"He wouldn’t go against the Guild. They were the ones who told him his horses should be safe."

"Safe? We’ve lost three in the past three weeks."

"I know. The king won't hear of it, though. He trusts those Guild elves with his life."

This didn’t sit right with Horlin. The Guild told the king not to worry about the very horses that were being stolen from his stables! To top it off, he realized he was unaware of what the Guild did. Now, he understood they even cowed the king.

Horlin waited for the stable boys to leave, and once they had, he popped up out of the barrel and stared at the horses. There were pieces to this puzzle that fit together in strange ways.

He returned to the forest, where he continued spying on Elena for nearly two more weeks. During that time, she ended up with two new horses.

One morning, after she received one that looked very similar to the one he'd caused to make a noise at the stables, he raced down to her cottage to check its hoof.

He stroked its nose, waiting for the horse's approval huff. It didn't take long, and he crouched down, seeing the marks on its shoe he already knew would be there.

"Good horse," he whispered, slinking off into the forest again.

Once he was back at his site, he began packing his things.

The Guild needed to make more sense to him, not only about their decision to choose a thief as their spy but also about their conversation with the king. Why did they tell him not to worry when it was already clear that the horses were going missing?

He wasn't going to tell the Guild about his findings. He wouldn't tell them anything. It was time he moved from spying on Elena to discovering more about this Guild of all-too-serious elves.

Horlin did not like the city, but the one thing he could appreciate was its ability to keep him hidden.

There was a dark alley facing the Guildhall, and he sat there for hours, waiting for the elves to leave. When night approached, the doors opened, and the dozen elves left their large building and dispersed. Horlin remained until they separated, and then he began to follow the lead elf he'd been talking with when he was initially sent on his mission.

The crowd was significant for it being so late in the evening, but what mattered to him was following the elves through the city center and further toward its outskirts. Every few minutes, a new, richly dressed Guild member appeared and followed the lead elf. Horlin thought the latecomers may not be part of the governing council.

The more there were, the farther behind Horlin dropped. He nearly lost them in the streets because he was so busy trying not to get caught.

He watched as signs all around told him they were leaving the city's outskirts, and as soon as they were in the great field, he realized the entire Guild must be assembled there.

He stood far away, hidden behind a boulder, but his ears were up, and his eyes were better at night. He was in his element.

He watched in horror as they removed their ears. Their hands changed color, their fingernails grew longer, and their eyes began to glow.

Witches!No wonder they seemed so off. They were a coven of witches.

From the corner of his eye, he saw Elena join the group.

"I have your copper."

"Took you long enough," the lead witch said to Elena.

"Relax, Laurena. You’re so impatient."

"I assumed you’d be quicker about changing their valuables into coins."

"Well, with that little gremlin following me, I must be careful."

Gremlin? She was talking about Horlin now! She had known of his presence this whole time. No wonder it seemed too easy for him to be spying on her.

"Don’t worry about him. He’ll be gone soon."

"And no one, particularly those who know him, will care at all." There was a chorus of chuckles.

"How are we to be sure he won’t question where his funds came from?" Elena asked.

"He won't know it comes from the little taxes you collect. You worry too much, Elena."

"Laurena, you underestimate people too often."

"Just trust me on this one. He’s a gnome."

"Fine. How are the plans with the horses going?"

"We'll get you a couple more. The gnome will figure out the little 'weakness' on his own sooner or later. He'll probably want to tell everyone." Laurena chuckled. "We'll take him out and blame it on the king. It should be easy enough. The king's horses are in your stable, and a gnome thief goes underground for good. The king seems incompetent as well as being unable to protect his little city from witches."

"You’d better be right about this."

"Speak, Ingrid," the lead witch boomed. It effectively squelched the mirth of the moment, but only for a moment.

An old, timid-looking witch with white hair stepped forward. "I've been hearing things about a gnome witch. Should we be concerned?"

Laurena waved off the question. "She is powerless. She prepares potions. Come on, we've got places to be." She looked up at Elena and gave a wicked grin. "You've got taxes to collect."

There was another round of evil giggling. "We need more."

"It’s getting harder to take everyone’s valuables and transform them."

"Well, get creative," Laurena said through gritted teeth. It came out as more of a hiss.

"Yes, Laurena," Elena agreed, and the witches left.

Horlin was in shock. They thought he was nothing but a thief. They thought they could control him. The part that really stung was that he knew they were right. He also knew that everyone who knew him would not be bothered if he disappeared. He could not change the past, but he would change the future.

Once he knew the coven was gone, he “borrowed” a horse and returned to his village as quickly as possible. His new mission was to hunt down this gnome witch he'd never heard of before.

The streets were deserted in his village. Gnomes are known for liking their sleep, but Horlin had been so wired from watching the witch for weeks that resting felt like something he barely even thought about anymore.

He ran toward Alden the blacksmith’s home and banged on the door until someone opened it.

"What do you think you’re doing here?" Alden snarled.

"Listen, Alden. Listen to me carefully."

"I don’t have to do anything for you." Alden nearly closed the door, but Horlin shoved it open again. "What are you—"

"Listen to me," Horlin hissed.

Alden went silent, and Horlin took this as his opportunity to finally speak.

"I’m in some trouble, and the city is in trouble. The Merchant Guild isn’t made up of elves. They’re witches."

Alden snorted. "How am I supposed to believe that?"

"The Guild—when I met them, they didn't seem right. They were silent. Serious. Nothing like the rest of the elves. I followed them tonight. They were there, with the witch Elena. I’m their bait for a bigger plan."

Alden’s face changed. He was starting to believe him. "What is this bigger plan?"

"They're going to kill me and blame all Elena's shakedowns and my death on the king. All these schemes are simply to make him look weak."

"Horlin, this is ridiculous. How am I supposed to believe any of this?"

"You don’t have to believe me. All I need to know is if you know anything about a gnome witch."

Alden’s eyes widened. He looked around at the deserted streets before pulling Horlin into his house and slamming the door.

"Where did you hear about the gnome witch?" Alden asked in a low voice.

"The witch coven. One asked if she would be a problem, but their leader brushed it off. I knew they were scared of her. I need to know where the gnome witch is and if I can get her to help me stop them."

"You’ve gotten in way over your head now, lad."

"I know, but I can't let them get away with this. They're stealing our valuables. They're turning them into copper coins. They're going to use scandals to turn the public against the king. I need your help, Alden. You know all there is to know about this place. If there is a gnome witch, you must tell me where she is so she can help me stop this."

There was silence. Alden looked at Horlin, his eyes looking into the past before snapping back to the present.

"She lives by the old well."

"The well? The well on the hill?"

Alden sighed, tired. "Yes."

"Thank you, Alden. You’re doing a great service."

"Just…get out of my house, thief."

"Good point, Alden. Can you please return the horse I 'borrowed'?"

Horlin didn't spare him a second glance. He raced out of the house and made his way to the hill. He held fond childhood memories of the place. Many children spent their days playing there until grown-ups worried about the well and whether kids would fall in trying to get water on hot days.

The closer he got, the more ominous his old memories seemed.

The tiny home on top was dark inside, but when he looked closely at one of its windows, he could see a candle burning.

He raced up the hill with the rest of his strength and knocked on the door.

When the door opened, Horlin was face to face with a dark-skinned gnome with curls sticking out every which way.

"What are you doing at my home?"

"Alden sent me. I need your help."

The witch sighed and turned away from the door. "Come in."

Horlin did so and was immediately hit with the scent of herbs. The hut was quaint, filled with shelves of books and potions.

"Speak."

"The witch coven—they've gone undercover as elves who run the merchant's Guild."

"Yes, I know. What does that have to do with me? There are many of them. I am only one. I try to stay away from them."

"They're trying to blame the king for crimes he hasn't committed."

The witch cocked her head to the side. "Such as?"

"Murder, theft—basically any scandal."

The gnome witch huffed and said nothing.

"Please. What is your name? Can you help me?"

There was more silence before she looked back at Horlin. The gnome witch's eyes softened, and she had the hint of a smile. "I need you to help me gather more rosemary. You will not be sleeping tonight. Neither of us will, but this coven and I have a history. They destroyed my family. They will go down."

She grabbed a basket and shoved it in his face before leaving the hut. "And my name is Joceli."

The two spent the night filling dozens of bottles with pine, rosemary, and red wine.

"I will send some with you to the Guild tomorrow. If we can sneak our way in, we should capture them all in one go in the safety of the building. No one will know what has happened there."

Joceli had a razor focus on filling her bottles.

"Why are we filling them with these ingredients, anyway?"

"Pine needles impale the evil, the wine drowns it, and the rosemary sends it away."

As the sun rose, Horlin felt his eyelids growing heavy, but he did not give into the feeling of sleep. Instead, as everyone else slept, they made their way to town with their bottles clinking away in Joceli’s bag.

At the doors, the guards let him in.

"This is a friend of mine. She has some information on Elena that will be useful to the Guild."

The guards nodded and let them enter.

Horlin then burst through the second set of heavy doors.

"Witches!" he shouted. “I know what you are!"

There was silence, and then a slow round of applause echoed throughout the room as the witches with elven ears broke into unsettling grins. "Well done, Horlin. It's too bad, really, that you can't celebrate your success."

"Our success." Joceli had entered the main room with bottles in her hands. She began shouting incantations, and the witches’ eyes turned to disgust at her presence. Still, before they could understand what was happening, screams erupted as witches were sucked from their places and into the bottles that filled with black smoke.

Horlin stood fixed in place in shock.

Elena ran into the room as they emptied the last podium and looked at Horlin and Joceli in fear. "What have you done?"

"She’s the last one, Joceli. Finish the job."

But Joceli didn’t move.

"Joceli," Horlin shouted. "What are you doing?"

"She’s not a witch."

"What are you talking about? Of course, she is!"

Joceli stepped forward with a curious look on her face. She was whispering as she approached Elena, and her whispering grew louder. With each repeat of her chant, Elena began to weaken and fall to her knees. A light flashed in her eyes, and suddenly, Elena's head snapped backward, and she screamed.

When all was quiet, Elena looked up and around. Years had fallen from her age. She was a beautiful young woman. With a confused look, she said, "where's the king? He won't be happy if I'm late to the palace." She was clearly referring to an appointment she missed. It must have been years before she was kidnapped and placed under the power of the witches.

The king was indeed happy to see Elena. He had feared the worst about his wife's chief lady in waiting. Horlin and Joceli were given a very sizable amount of money to keep silent about an incident that did nothing good for the monarchy. Horlin officially disappeared, although there were rumors he was working—unseen—for the king. Joceli re-opened her family business preparing potions. Joceli’s garden had been carefully fenced off. No one could enter, and nothing grew there.


THE END


2024 Murray Eiland

Bio: Author...

Website: Murray Eiland's Website

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