Alexandria brushed aside a tangled lock of her unkempt hair and pressed an ear against the splintered, ramshackle wall that separated the tiny den from the rest of the cottage. There were no noises on the other side; surely Mother had fallen asleep by now, surely it would be safe enough to creep out and find something to eat, surely— she leapt back as something slammed against the wood, shattered, and left a protruding dent a mere centimetre from where her head had been.
“Cursed. Cursed! I should’a taken ‘er when she was a babe. Fuckin’ witch. It’s too late… too late.”
Mother’s slurred muttering grabbed at her heart and twisted it before dumping it into the pit of her stomach. Although she had heard those words so many times, among others that were far more distressing, they were still painful.
Collapsing upon the filthy black dust that, long ago, had served as straw bedding, she buried her head between her knees and tried not to cry.
‘A witch,’ Mother had called her. It was all she had ever known. Kept isolated and hidden from the outside world, from the simple pleasure of fresh air and sunlit skies, she was a shameful burden that weighed heavy upon the hearts and minds of those who shared in the knowledge of her existence. If borne by a stronger woman she would not be alive this day to cause such pain and hardship to the surrounding village. She was cursed. She was demon-spawn. Mother should’ve taken her when she was a babe.
“It’s too late!” Mother wailed, as she did nightly after several mugs of ale. “Red-haired demon-spawn. Should’a taken her… so small, so helpless, so easy. Gods forgive me.”
“So easy. It would be so easy just to take my own life,” Alexandria muttered, inspecting her filthy fingernails. “I could make this hand glow, and then I could tear out my heart as painfully as her words already do.”
A tear escaped the welling pool in her eyes and she hurriedly wiped it away before more could follow. Taking her own life was a thought that often crossed her mind. With her death Mother and the villagers would no longer have to live under the misery her existence caused, but it wasn’t quite so easy. She had been told that if she so much as breathed too loud the Magisters of the Sundered Isles would sense her, send forth their vile horsemen, and have her murdered. That was no bother —she would gladly die— but once her blood painted the stone the entire village would be made accountable for their role in harbouring her.
If even breathing could summon the horsemen, surely her self-mutilation would be a great scream that’d echo up to the Isles and draw them to the village and still deliver the Magisters’ wrath upon them.
She couldn't risk it.
Her life was Mother’s fault and their deaths would be hers.
The tears threatened to spill once more and she quickly shook her head and shut her eyes, the movement allowing her dirty red tangles to fall across her face, the same red tangles that marked her as disgusting and despised, as a cursed demon-spawn. No matter the fear that she caused or the pain that they suffered, she refused to also be the deliverer of their demise. The path she walked was a fine line, a painfully fine line. Mother should’ve taken her.
Her stomach gurgled, reminding her of why she was waiting for Mother’s slow sleep, and she gingerly placed her ear back against the crumbling wall. The last morsel she had eaten was a quarter-loaf of stale bread and a blackened carrot found beside Mother’s comatose body three nights ago, all else had been the single bowl of filthy water shoved unceremoniously into her dark, musty den each morning; she was hungry.
Insects chirped in the bushes outside, their raucous tune overwhelming her heart’s thud as she stood against the wall, as motionless as the dead, and listened for the silence she so desperately sought. There was no movement, no subdued mutterings, and no objects being thrown about. Just as the night before and the night before last, it was time to make her move.
“By Xandur’s eternal compassion, please let there be something out there this time,” she mouthed to a God who would not acknowledge her, and slowly inched the door open.
The rusted hinges squealed.
Mother whimpered, then quietened.
Alexandria stopped moving and held her breath, listening through the insect song and into the shrieking silence. Although she performed these actions nightly, she’d never worked out how to silence the damned door… not without summoning the golden glow. She loathed using it. It no longer felt as though she controlled her own body; it was as though someone else possessed her every thought and movement and she was a mere bystander, helpless to that which occurred around her.
Seconds passed and so did the minutes. There were no more reactions to her presence. Her eyes adjusted to the light of the single candle, near burned to a tiny stub, and peered about the room, then inwardly groaned as she focused on the shards of glass that glittered atop the rotting floorboards. It was difficult to determine if this was the result of Mother’s bottles being smashed in a fit or if the woman had caught wind of her despised daughter’s nightly forage and was trying to keep her holed up in that tiny room.
Amidst a pile of broken wood that had once been some form of furniture, Mother lay languidly across a stained cushion and a gleaming vessel dangled from drooping fingers. It was the single unspoiled item in the decrepit room. There was no immediate evidence of food but she would search well. One night, at least a season past, she had found a fresh, untarnished apple hiding in the mouth of Mother’s boot —by the Gods, that had been a fantastic find! Anything was possible, and yet it was just as likely she’d return to her room with nothing.
One careful step in front of the last led her around the shards and farther into the unwelcoming area. Suddenly, a creak echoed through the deathly silence as her foot dared touch the wrong floorboard and Mother leapt up from the debris, as quick and alert as though she had never been asleep at all.
Unable to breathe, Alexandria froze.
“She-demon,” Mother hissed.
Silhouetted by the dimming candlelight, the woman’s brown hair was a tangled mess overrun with harsh white streaks, bald and scabbed in patches where strands had been ripped from her scalp, her skin was pale with deep purple blotches, her dangling breasts were unconcealed by the remnants of a torn garment that hung from her thin frame, and an ugly snarl was fixed to her gaunt face.
Alexandria shrank back.
“Don’t call me that!”
The gleaming vessel grasped tight in Mother’s hand suddenly shattered into a thousand shards as it smashed into the wall beside her and joined those already on the floor. She raised her hands in a futile attempt to shield her face but Mother strode towards her and grabbed her by the arm, her enraged shrieks shriller than Alexandria’s startled cry.
“Get back into your den, filth. Get back!”
“But, please… I—”
Alexandria sensed rather than saw the glint of silver that appeared in Mother’s free hand, and for the first time in years she laughed. There was no cheer in the outburst, instead it was a strangled gurgle that quickly reached the height of hysteria as she giggled frantically behind raised hands.
“N-no! I’ll get back. I’ll go. Please. Don’t do it, d-don’t hurt me. You’ll call the horsemen… the dread horses! M-mother—”
“I am not your mother, you cursed witch!”
A burst of pain burned through her body and she screamed. The silver knife flashed down and sliced into the soft flesh of her arm, so deep that the blade scraped the bone, and she fell to her knees upon the mass of broken glass.
“Get back,” Mother repeated, her red-rimmed eyes glaring down at her before they wavered with fear. “I-I… by the Gods,” she shrieked. “Look what you made me do!”
The world seemed to stop as Alexandria’s instincts took over. The cursed magic suppressed since childhood burst free and overpowered all thoughts and feelings, the energies rose up and interwove with the pain that poured from the wound and hungrily fed upon each throb of agony, and emotionlessly, she slowly climbed to her feet and stared into Mother’s fearful eyes.
“That wasn’t very nice, Mother.”
“I-I… am not y-your mo—”
Alexandria flung out her wounded arm, unleashing an invisible wave of energy that threw the woman across the room with the strength of a dozen men.
“You should really take more care, Mother,” she smiled. “The horsemen will be coming now. Coming for me. For you. For us all. And it’s your fault!”
She calmly looked at the gouge in her arm, blinked, then gaped.
Blood ran down her skin in thick crimson rivulets. Blood. Her cursed blood. Her eyes darted about the room, her heart racing as she simultaneously watched her mother moan and watched for an entire army of horsemen to appear in a flash of lightning. They were coming for her —they were coming!
Mother crawled upright and tried to steady herself and Alexandria raised a hand, allowing the energy to wrap itself around the woman and hold her still.
“Don’t move,” she screeched.
Unable to move or to speak, her bedraggled mother began to sweat. The black aura of fear swept through the room, an aura Alexandria subconsciously drank into herself to increase her power, and unaware of the golden sheen that glimmered from her emerald eyes she lightly touched the mangled limb with glowing fingertips.
“It’ll be okay, it’ll be okay,” she murmured frantically, encouraging the blood to slow and the separated flesh to become whole. A soft golden gleam spread across her arm and pulled the flesh together, threading the skin with the expertise of a tailor joining fabrics. “By the Three, please. It needs to be okay.”
“The Gods don’t hear you,” Mother moaned. “The Gods abhor you.”
Alexandria ignored her mother and focused on repairing her arm, and the laceration was almost fully healed when a gust of wind blew hard against the wooden planks of the cottage and disrupted her concentration. The shutters rattled, the floorboards trembled, and as icy tendrils seeped through the broken walls Mother moaned again.
“The dread horses, they’re coming. Y-you will return to the lower planes!”
“And you will come with me,” Alexandria retorted.
A shiver spread over her skin and raised the tiny hairs that covered her body, a delightful pulse coursed through her veins and ignited her blood, and a devilish smile crept over her face as she peered down at Mother with piercing golden eyes. Sweeping her arm in a wide circle, the energy crackled around the room and spun about Mother akin to a spider’s cocoon, and as it held the woman firmly in place Alexandria tightened her fist.
“It’s just as you said,” she said, offering a serene smile. “You were right all along. You should’ve taken me when I was a babe.”
The energy tightened about Mother’s throat and within moments she gasped for breath, helpless upon the dirt-encrusted floorboards.
“Goodbye, Mother.” Alexandria clicked her fingers. Mother’s head twisted with a sharp crack and her body slumped to the floor. “Oh, that was so easy. Just as you always said it would be.”
Thunder boomed and drowned out the screeching insects, and the icy tendrils that permeated the cottage transformed into a gale that blew her knotted tangles about her face, swept the shattered glass into a cyclonic vortex that spun circles about the room, and snuffed out both the light of the lone candle, the magic, and her bizarre confidence.
Alexandria wrapped her arms around her chest and shivered, listening as the razor-sharp glass screamed alongside the wind, and collapsed to the floor, curling her body into a tiny ball.
“Oh no, no, no,” she sobbed. “By the Gods —no! What have I done?”
The shutters slammed against the frames before being wrenched from their hinges, allowing flashes of lightning to intermittently illuminate the chaos, and then the door splintered in two, revealing a heavy boot as the wood fell away.
A jag of lightning silhouetted the tall, well-built man who stood where the door had been. The wind blew his braided black hair in serpentine tendrils about his head, his dark eyes were emotionless as they surveyed the scene, and though they widened as they fell upon her he swiftly concealed the motion.
The man’s shock was not hidden quick enough. In that brief moment of unrestraint, Alexandria’s mind unintentionally entwined with his and she observed the scenario as he did.
A skinny wasteling lay huddled amidst piles of rubble and debris. Filthy, matted tangles framed her pale, emaciated face, bruised circles rimmed her weeping green eyes, and the waver of tainted uncertainty was a bemusement that flickered behind unshed tears. Her skin was as white as moonlight, evidently having never seen the light of day, and a torn, dingy dress barely covered her modesty. It was clearly tailored for someone much younger and shorter; a child; this woman would be nearing twenty.
An older woman’s body lay nearby, as twisted as a coil, her head forcefully wrenched to face backwards, and he quickly turned his gaze back to the wasteling.
Joh’s eye —her hair was red. Beneath that filth it was red!
His racing pulse cut through his quickening thoughts and saliva swelled in his mouth as a sudden burning pierced his mind. It was her. The fabled red-haired witch was reading him. How was that possible? His horse’s storm vanquished all magic. The mare had never failed before!
On edge, the authority and persona of Horsemen of the Isles took over and demanded he draw his blade.
The shrill sound of steel scraping against its sheath was unmistakable against the chaos and Alexandria scrambled back until she hit the wall, cowering. She had wanted to die for so many years but now that death stared down at her via the impassive stare of the horseman, she wanted to live —by the Gods, she wanted to live!
“N-no —please!” she wailed. “Don’t kill me. I—”
“Milady,” he interrupted, his deep voice booming over the sharp cracks of thunder that reverberated through the remains of the shattered cottage. “You have been called to the attention of my Lords. Pray come as bidden, or come bound by the gifts bestowed upon me by Esra’elle himself.”
“Y-you… you’re not going to… p-please! Don’t kill me, don’t kill me, don’t ki—”
“That hair of yours has already sealed your fate; I, however, am not your executioner.”
He tightened his grip on the hilt of his sword and the last thing Alexandria saw was the ruby eyes of a two-headed cat fixed to the pommel as it descended, its double-snarl transforming into a drooling grin as it paused a bare inch from her face, then a hard hand smacked into the side of her neck, rendering the world black.
Matthew glared down at the fallen woman and sheathed his sword. He could take no chances with a fabled witch of the crimson hair. It may have been more prudent to smack her with his sword but the Council would be displeased with such an action —she must be kept whole. Those with the crimson hair were only born once a century and usually they were killed at birth; he would not dare presume the wishes of the Lord Magisters but it was likely that, despite superstitious sentiment, a living specimen would be highly desired.
Harsh rasps filled the air, followed by wheezing snorts and the scrape of hooves against dirt. His mare was impatient.
“Ca’na, vin ba elasa,” he murmured, words from the ancient tongue that allowed he and his men to bond with and control Esra’elle’s mage-sniffing beasts. “Be calm, Ca’na, I’m coming. This time we have a passenger.”
Bending down to gather the witch in his arms, she whimpered as a previously unshed tear rolled down her cheek and spattered over the subtle runes woven within his uniform, the runes that protected him from the simple magic of the unlearned peasant mages. Unfortunately, this woman was no simple mage. Both the runes and his horse had failed to combat her ability to enter his mind and such a fact needed to be reported before the Lord Magisters inspected her.
A mist swarmed about the buildings in the village, each one of finer craftsmanship than the ramshackle cottage he had just exited, and the thick sweeping clouds covered he and his prize from the frightened yet curious eyes of her neighbours; the men and women who were likely relieved by her removal, assuming, of course, they knew of her existence.
Whether they were aware of her or not, they could live free now, he smiled.
Ca’na released a soft whinny that spiralled through the fog and hurriedly performed a small trotting dance, pleased that her rider had returned, and Matthew gave her a reassuring scratch as he slung the unconscious witch over his shoulder and hoisted himself up into the saddle.
“We have a gift for the Council,” he murmured into the horse’s ear. “We’d best be quick before she awakens.”
Ca’na snorted cooperatively. Leaping up into lightning-struck clouds as black as the descent of the moons, she screamed a soul-piercing whinny into the night and galloped as fast as her long legs could manage, racing against time to reach the Sundered Isles.
This is Chapter Two of The Aethya's End, Book One of the Forgotten Prophecy series. A book and series that is still a work-in-progress but one that I hope to finally get out there this year. (I say that every year; may this year be the one!)
It's been an active work-in-progress for over a decade and has been in mind, constantly evolving and changing shape, for double that.
To the non-native English speakers who may have tried to read this, I am sorry about my archaic voice and use of uncommon words. 😂
Next chapter coming as time allows. 😊 I am slowly getting them up to a printable/publishable standard. Well, to my standards anyway -- I am very much aware that my writing is not for today's mainstream. 😂 I love it though and will get this labour of love out of my system.
I really need to stop being a perfectionist and just get this out there instead of re-writing it twenty million times. Eurgh.