Witches and Warriors
by J. H. Wear
To live, sometimes one has to die first.
It is time of turmoil as kingdoms battle for land and control. In the midst of fighting, two rival orders of witches try to spread their philosophy of peace.
Alric, weary of being a warrior, tries to find a way to leave the army. The punishment for desertion is death—but only if he is caught.
Ululla, a witch of the Whiterose order, has a journey of her own with two very different companions. As she travels it becomes apparent that there are forces besides kingdoms and witches at work to gain control of the world.
Terrowin swung a weathered tree branch at the thick vegetation, skirting the main path of the forest. The journey was easy, but the destination to the Blackrain Cabins made him uncomfortable. He’d heard rumours that witches were also seen in the area but despite his occasional visit, he had never seen any.
His thoughts were interrupted by the cry of a large crow, sitting on a branch a few feet away, its yellow eyes peering back at him. His heart jumped when it screeched and flew off, the wings beating the air as it weaved between the trees. Terrowin stared at the shrinking black image and turned his attention to the branch upon which it had been sitting. The limb was thick but stunted, as if it just stopped growing and died. A bad omen, his mother would say. Slightly unnerved, he continued his walk, finding the sudden silence of the forest eerie.
The path led to the Blackrain Cabins, a trio of large cabins made of oak. Rumour was it turned black from a miscast spell the inhabitants used. Not much was known about those living in the cabins No one knew how many lived there or what they looked like. While they did do some magic, it was believed they had little to do with the witches. The occupants sold herbs and mild magic potions, and Terrowin’s mother needed a potion from them to make the old bull fertile again.
An errant insect landed on his head, and he swept it away, pushing back his unkempt blond hair. Terrowin was worried over his appearance in attracting women. His height made him feel awkward, and his face held several red pimples making him self-conscious around mixed company, when the rare occasion arose. An angular structure to his face indicated he could be considered handsome as he grew older, but for now the frustration of being the only remaining male on a farm made him long for better times.
Following the memorized pathways to the Blackrain Cabins, the thick forest gave way to a clearing. Terrowin paused, apprehensive about his task. The cabins were composed of heavy, dark, square timber with the roofs made of thatch where a chimney poked through, always producing a dark, grey smoke. Taking a deep breath, he approached, reaching the largest by way of the worn pathway that angled over the grassy yard. Nervously, he knocked on the door and waited.
Terrowin jumped back when the thick rectangular door partially opened, showing only a dark interior. He held his breath momentarily as a musty, burnt smell escaped from the opening.
A tall figure wearing a black, hooded robe spoke in a deep voice. “What is it you wish?”
He stammered out a reply. “So-ome-something for our bull. He’s not making the-the cows produce. He’s not even in-interested in them much. Something for my mother, too. Her bones hu-hurt.”
The door was pushed almost closed, and Terrowin could hear only muffled voices. The door crept open a minute later. A dirty cloth bag was thrust toward him by a thick arm covered with black hair and red scars. “This is for the bull. We have nothing now for your mother. Five bronze.”
Terrowin swallowed. “I was told to pay only four.”
Silence hung at the dark gap of the doorway. “Four bronze then.”
He took the bag and passed over four tarnished brown coins. The door closed.
The inhabitants of the cabin varied prices according to their own needs, and it appeared he had arrived at a good time. Terrowin hurried away, pleased he had negotiated the price down. His mother had given him seven bronze coins, telling him he must try to pay no more than five for the bull medicine. If they had something for the aches in her joints, then he should obtain that as well. She stressed the bull potion was more important than her own pain.
He followed the weedy path back, hitting the occasional tree trunk with the stick, and returned where the stronger path presented itself. He was tempted to follow the path leading to a stream but turned the other way toward home. As he followed the path the noise of birds flapping away drew his attention, and he studied the blue and yellow gypsy birds darting between trees.
Two shadows emerge from behind the screen of branches and leaves, following the path that came from the stream. Terrowin dropped into a crouch next to a large tree and watched, barely breathing. The shadows turned into witches, women dressed in soft pastel gowns and unaware of his presence. While the dresses they wore were full length, they were also light in fabric, and their slim bodies could be made out partially underneath. He remembered a few years ago, when he was with his family on a visit to the town of Drumclog where he saw witches for the first time. Both were also female. One wore a dark blue dress while the other a green one. At fourteen, he was fascinated with their supple movements and the hint of the female figure underneath. His older sister, Thea, had admonished him.
“Don’t stare. If they see you looking too hard, they will put a curse on you. Witches don’t want humans to know anything about them.” She jerked his shoulder, forcing him to turn away.
At that time, he’d reluctantly stopped staring, occasionally casting a glance as they inspected some of the market goods, but he retained the vision of their beauty. Witches were usually tall, slim, and of good health. The women kept their hair long and walked with an easy grace. It became his idea of the ideal feminine form.
Those thoughts came back to him as they approached. When they were within a few feet of him, they turned off the path and into the brush. He carefully moved from his hiding spot and followed, keeping them just within his sight. They walked to one of the hills and stopped by a tree standing at its base where they stepped forward and disappeared.
Odd, he thought. He carefully made his way to where they’d vanished into the hill covered in grass, small bushes, and a large tree. They went into the hill. A secret passageway or hideout.
He turned to hurry away, suddenly aware he had discovered one of the witches’ secrets. Blocking his way were six witches, all men, spread out in a semi-circle in front of him. Terrowin ran, seeking a path through the trees to make it difficult for his pursuers to follow.
The witches were quick, cutting off his escape. He pulled his knife from his belt, holding it in one hand while raising the stick in the other. The witches closed in on him, and he desperately swung the stick and jabbed with the knife. Both movements were ineffective. He was gripped by strong arms, disarmed, and dragged to the hill, him screaming. A leather bag was placed over his head, and in the darkness, he pleaded, “Please let me go. I won’t tell nobody what I saw.”
Resistance was useless. He was pushed and pulled into what he knew had to be inside the hill. It smelled of damp earth as he went down a spiral stairway. The hands holding him were gone, and as soon as he took off the hood, he found he was in a small bedroom. It contained a simple bed, a small table with a burning lantern on it, and a single stool. The walls and ceiling were made from stone blocks with grey mortar holding them in place.
Scared and, despite his resolve to be brave, tears ran down his cheeks, but his heart had slowly stopped thumping in his chest. Sitting on the bed, he thought back to how fate had placed him inside the witches’ home. Long minutes passed, and he replayed the events that led him to the witches in the forest, until the wood door opened.
A female witch with long golden hair stepped inside and closed the door behind her. She smiled. “My name is Ululla. What is yours?”
He stared at her for several seconds. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, exceeding even his fantasies. He replied in a shaken voice. “Terrowin. Please let me go.”
She sat next to him on the bed. “Why did you follow the two witches here?”
“I don’t know. I saw them and thought they looked nice.”
“What is this?” She held up the dirty cloth bag.
“I bought it from the Blackrain Cabins. It’s to make our bull want cows again.”
“Was there anyone else with you?”
“No, I swear. Please, can I go now?”
She stood. “Please do not fear. I will return soon.”
Terrowin looked at the door, sure it would be useless to try to leave by it. He hoped they would just let him go, but he remembered the stories of witches killing those who learned of their secrets. He regretted ever encountering them.
The door opened, and Ululla returned, carrying a tray with bread, a small vial, a cup, and a pot of tea. She gave him a gentle smile. “Terrowin, I don’t want you to be scared. Try to accept who you are and how you are following a path of life.” She placed the tray on the table and sat next to him on the bed.
“What’s going to happen to me?”
“I think you know the answer already.”
“Please…” Tears welled up at his eyes again.
“Tell me, Terrowin, have you considered where you were before you were born?”
He was surprised by her question and looked into her eyes, blue with gold sparkles. He lowered his head. “No, never thought about that.”
She lifted his chin with her fingertips. “Witches believe we have many lives. This isn’t the only life you have had or your last.” She leaned toward him and gently brushed his hair from his face. “Would you like to know more about your other lives?”
He was surprised by the conversation and numbly nodded.
Ululla retrieved the tray from the table and passed him the vial with a dark blue powder in it.
“It tastes rather sour, but let it melt on your tongue.”
“Is it poison?” He stared at the vial.
“No, just a means so you can remember the past. You will feel a bit light-headed, but you’ll see part of your past. The powder will awaken your memories.”
Terrowin placed the powder on his tongue. He waited as the bitter taste filled his mouth and was about to comment on it when he blurted out instead, “I remember being in a castle. I’m walking with others around me.”
Ululla smiled. “What else?”
“I remember riding a horse.” He grinned. “It was a big horse and well trained.”
Ululla listened as Terrowin described a collage of memories. “I think I was important, maybe a nobleman, because others keep looking up to me. I know something about...spells, like I was a witch or something.” Then he frowned. “They seem to be fading now.”
“That’s okay. They were part of your past life. We aren’t meant to remember them normally as it would burden our new life. Sometimes we will see or hear something familiar and don’t know why. It’s a just below the surface memory of a previous life calling out to us.” She looked at Terrowin in the eye. “Do you now understand we have past and future lives?”
“Good.” She handed him the bread. “Please eat this now.”
He took it from her hand. “Why?”
“It is to help you. Trust me.”
He slowly ate the dark bread, and when he was done, she poured him a cup of tea. Unenthusiastically he took the clay cup in his hand, staring at the orange liquid.
“Drink it, please.” She returned the tray to the table.
“Is it poison?”
“If you refuse to drink it, we’ll have to use a less pleasant method. Please.” She touched his shoulder. “I don’t want you to suffer more than you have to.”
“This will kill me, won’t it?”
“Yes, your journey has come to an end. This life path is complete.” She placed a finger under his chin. “When you awake again you will have a new life to begin.”
“I don’t want to die,” he blurted out.
“We don’t always have that choice. Your only choice is how you wish to go. I care for you and want you to make the right decision. Please drink the tea. Otherwise the others will have to do their job.”
A tear ran down his cheek. “Will you give the magic in the bag to my mother? She needs the cows to produce calves and milk.”
“Will you tell my mother and Thea I died bravely? Let them know I love them?”
Ululla appeared to consider the question before finally replying. “For you, Terrowin, I’ll do this.”
He slowly lifted the cup and paused. “My mother has pain in her hands and knees. Will you please give her something to help her? I heard witches have magic that can help.”
“That is not my decision to make, but I will ask this wish be granted for you.”
He nodded. With a shaking hand, he placed the cup to his lips and swallowed the sweet tasting liquid. It burned in his stomach, although not too painfully. He handed the cup to her, and she placed it on the tray before climbing into bed next to him, pulling his head to her chest.
“The bread will slow down the effects of the tea. Don’t be scared. You will get sleepy and not feel any pain. I’ll be with you until the end.”
Already he felt sleepy. As he moved his hand across her lap, the tingling in his legs and arms had already begun.
He croaked out a final question. “Why did you show me my past life?”
“I wanted to make you understand you will live again. I do care about you. You must understand the decision to end your life was done reluctantly, but I was glad I was chosen to be the one who you spend your last hour with.”
He tried to move his arms, but the strength had left them. He wondered how he came to meet death this way and was curious as to why he wasn’t scared anymore, though his heart thumped in his chest. Wondering how many beats it had left, his eye lids grew heavy, but he fought to keep awake as long as he could.
Terrowin gasped for air, his heart pounding. It wasn’t as bad as he feared, his mind fighting consciousness for the final seconds. He closed his eyes, letting the warmth of the darkness take him.