The fiddlers tune was light, and sailed over the continuous drone of the crowded room. The soft gentle beating of the drum, mingled with the men's voices, bringing the sounds of the room together, creating the familiar, and comforting din of the tavern. Although a different tavern to the day before, and the day before that, the atmosphere, and the characters within these scattered alehouses were so similar as to be the same the world over. The distance Jada travelled each day was irrelevant, as night after night, she seemed to sleep in the same place.
She swilled the last few drops of ale around the bottom of her cup, feigning fascination at the curious but familiar dregs that remained impassive under her apathetic gaze. After careful scrutiny she tipped the contents onto the mud floor, and refilled her tankard from the jug.
After the usual ritual of refusing offered drinks, and requests for a dance, a walk, or some other kind of intimate association, the interest in the female warrior had declined, and she'd been left alone to watch the crowded room from her vantage point in the corner. She preferred watching to talking, and through this tried and trusted method she was able to learn all that she needed to about the small town she had entered. She could quickly pick out, and eliminate, the habitual drunkards, wastrels, and labourers, and it was effortless to identify effeminate young lords, waited on with excitement by impressionable wenches. It was more difficult to spot the contrabandists, the raiders, and the bandits. There was never any guarantee that there would be any, and if there were they were usually on the run and looking to keep low. Most frustratingly, was the fact that even if she was able to identify a bandit planning their next escapade, it was more than likely that, sorcerer or not, they wouldn't want a woman in their midst; too distracting and too conspicuous. Jada had been living off her last job for two months, and felt that the life she leading was far from the excitement she had originally envisioned.
She held her cup to her lips, but couldn't bring herself to drink any more of the tasteless brown liquid, and set it back down. She gave one more glance around the room. A small cheer went up as the first few notes of an old jig were played, and several patrons began to shuffle awkwardly in a poor attempt at a group dance. Jada decided that she would not find work here, and grabbed her cloak before heading towards the door.
The night was cool, an icy breeze had settled in the air, it stung her hot cheeks, and felt refreshing after the stagnant smell of the overcrowded tavern. It was not too late to visit another tavern, and try again, but her mood had dropped, and she began to think of returning home, back across the marches, and into the comfort of wealth and respectability, however restrictive it would be.
She untied her horse, and led him through the unfamiliar streets, preferring to walk after a long day of riding. The wind was icy, but the surrounding woodland would protect her from the worst of the cold, and she could save money if she camped for the night. She began to retrace the day's journey in her mind, thinking of a suitable campsite she may have passed, but was distracted by a small light in the gloomy dusk. It was not the only light in the town, by now most homes had their fires or candles burning, but this light was different. She considered that she might be seeing a candle distorted by coloured glass; it had been a long while since she had come across another sorcerer, but she knew the familiar glow of magic. In careful curiosity, Jada led her horse towards the glimmer.
It emanated from a small lean-to shack resting against the apothecary's. Its construction could only be described as temporary; even the most determined resident wouldn't be able to prevent its destruction in the next spring storm, she thought a sneeze might bring it down. Jada hesitated outside; she could feel the buzzing of magic prickling across her skin; her own power responding to its presence. She had no definite purpose, it was only a vague sense of familiarity, a desire for home, which made her tie her horse to the fence, and cross the curtained threshold.
The room smelt faintly of frankincense, shelves covered the walls, crammed full of glimmering liquids, and a small fire crackled in the grate. Through the greenish gloom Jada could make out a hunched figure, seated at a small rickety table, it looked up and beckoned her forward.
"I'm glad you came." The figure was ancient, wrinkled, and with pox-scarred skin, its looks and voice were ambiguous, Jada searched her memory, but nothing was forthcoming "I thought I sensed another. Take a seat my dear." It gestured to a chair opposite, and although she was beginning to have reservations, Jada sat. She noticed the figure was shuffling cards. 'A sooth' she thought, perplexed by the presence of so many potions; fortune telling and potion making are ancient and specialised magic's, it is rare for an individual to practice both with any degree of skill or proficiency.
"Since you are here, my dear, I shall do a reading for you. Perhaps it will help you to find your way." Jada didn't protest, as dangerous as predictions could be, she felt that on some level she agreed. She fished in her purse for a coin, and placed the silver on the table, the green flame of the magic fire danced in its reflection. The gnarled greying hands of the fortune teller carefully set down three cards, one after another, green fire lightly crackled across their surface. The fortune teller pocketed the rest of the cards, and with both hands hovering above the table, muttered an incantation.
Jada had seen several soothsayers at work, masters of the different and unpredictable methods of reading. It was most commonly the future that was read, but the distant present, and the ancient past could be seen and interpreted with the same degree of accuracy.
The first card was carefully turned over; the impassive, skeletal face of Death, riding his pale horse, stared blankly out of the card, oblivious to the potency of his presence.
"An end. The end of a journey, the end of a way of life, and a turning point." Jada was not surprised, she had yet to see a reading without the appearance of this figure; the drama of his presence made an impact, and his message of change, in such an unpredictable world, was always relevant.
"The Queen of Cups. A bearer, a giver, but upside down - a taker - a thief." Burning blue eyes looked out from under the cloak "do you know such a person?" The silver coin winked at Jada in the flickering light, and its stolen brothers, snug in her purse, burned at her thigh.
"Perhaps." she said.
The last card was turned over.
"The hanging man. Repentance. Justice. Retribution. In some cases: a forfeit." Jada shifted in her seat, the poignancy of the message was uncomfortable. The gnarled hands once again hovered over the table.
"Together, their meaning is clear; A sacrifice."
"A Martyr, a scapegoat. Your life is forfeit." Jada glanced up from the cards and into those intense blue eyes, searching. She saw sincerity, but after so many years reading cards, eyes can be trained to show honesty. "For just a few more coins, I can show you the path you must take to avoid your destiny…" Jada stood, the suddenness of her movement shook the table.
"No." she said "Thank you." Her curiosity had been satisfied, there was no real magic here, just an old crone twisting coins from the lonely and the lost. She'd used the same tricks herself in the early days, and as she left the lean-to she berated herself for being so foolish as to waste even a single coin on the experience.
She unhooked her horse, and with a new determination headed towards the tavern. But as she turned the corner, she heard the distinctive sound of a horn in the distance. She paused, listening to the night; she could hear the raucous laugher in the tavern, the cries of a babe in one of the houses close by. She could hear shouts, from a warring couple, or an angry brawl. She closed her eyes, and focused on clearing away the din of a town at night… and there it was. About four miles north-east, and closing… the hue and cry had been sent up.
She knew well that upon hearing a horn and shouting, all bystanders are summoned to assist in the apprehension of a criminal, this 'hue and cry' must be kept up, from town to town and from county to county, until the guilty party is caught, and delivered to the sheriff. She didn't know why the cry had been sent up, but she knew it wouldn't be long before the search party would arrive at the town gates.
She hesitated in the cold, she knew her own crimes had been committed far from here, but the words 'justice' and 'retribution' hung in her ears.
"Shit" she whispered. No longer tired from the day's ride, she swung herself onto her horse, and fled.
She hadn't stopped at any towns, or even gone near to them. She had avoided the roads, and ridden across country, 'to save money' she told herself, but at the same time she was unable to fight the urge that drove her west, further west that she'd ever been, or ever even heard about.
The last few rays of sunlight scattered through trees, heavy with unfamiliar blossom. Although tired she didn't want to rest, she wanted to push forward for just a few more hours into the darkness.
Without stopping, she stretched her arm forward, clenching her hand into a tight fist, she felt the magic prickling over her body, and her horse shuddered beneath her. Light emanated from her skin, and as she unclasped her fingers, she released an orb, which bobbed in the air in front of her, spilling its soft blue light into the forest.
She was tired, and her eyes were heavy, but she was sure the light was blue. Not the soft green light she was used to. Although curious about the oddity, she was unconcerned. Magic, she knew, came from the earth, therefore in different lands, with different earth beneath her feet, it would make sense that a different type of magic would be present. She remembered stories from her childhood, in which sorcerers in the far eastern lands would use magic of a fantastic shining red. She'd often wished that her own, dim green power was as breathtaking, but now that her green had gone, she yearned for its comfort.
Years had passed since the last stranger had wandered into the Drongo Woods. Legends and folk tales that frightened children had been carried into adulthood, and people had found ways to avoid the forest. The rituals hadn't taken place in years, and there was a flurry of excitement when it was confirmed that a warrior had indeed crossed the threshold into their domain.
Almost everyone had gathered, they sensed the magic, and were eager to hear the judgement of the elders. After the years of emptiness, perhaps the years of plenty could be starting once more. In the great hall they pushed and squeezed, each trying to get to the front, each trying to see, and be seen.
Maddwŷn leaned against the side wall, she watched the bustling elders with interest, she too had felt the new presence enter the forest, and was just as eager to hear the pronouncement, but at only one winter into adulthood, she felt distanced from those around her, the chasm of age prevented her from becoming anything more than a spectator.
The raised stage stopped the jostling crowd from coming any closer to the great table, unless called upon to ascend the three stone steps that separated the ranks of the enlightened, from the rest. The Elders formed an unofficial government, and created the rules which, although not law, were rigidly followed by every member of the clan. But they were ageing. The ritual had not been performed in Maddwŷn's lifetime, and the Elders had become a dwindling and eccentric group of geriatrics.
A nominee had been made after the last ritual, and it was they, who now had the right to perform the next, but the nominee was as frail as the rest of them. It was ludicrous to waste this opportunity on someone who may not live another summer. Or at least it seemed ludicrous to some on the council, others wished to maintain the ancient tradition. But the excitement of the crowd had piqued when it was suggested that the elders were discussing new nominees.
The Elders had bathed the great table in a silencing cloak, although public, they wanted to ensure that their discussions could not be overheard. However it was clear that debate raged. Until at last, Balthazar, oldest of the old, frail and wingless, stood and released the council from the silent bind. The people hushed, waiting.
"We have gathered," he started "in this ancient place, because, after years of waiting, the ritual can once again be performed. We have, however, been forced to consider… the possibility that this may not again occur within our lifetime." There were gasps of dismay at this, and Maddwŷn had to concede that it had been over optimistic of some to consider this as the beginning of a renewed time of plenty. "As such, we cannot allow this council of elders to perish we must do what we can to preserve the enlightenment for as long as we can. And so with this in mind, we have decided upon a new nominee." So it was true, the speculation had been correct and the council were looking to replace their next in line, Maddwŷn gazed around the gathering place, wondering on what basis they had made their next choice. Balthazar glanced back at the council of elders, seeking reassurance, giving one last opportunity to change the proceeding before the announcement, but there was no dissent, no change of heart. He returned his failing eyes to look upon those gathered. "On this principle, we have made the decision that the council of elders must continue, for as long as possible. So our nominee is the youngest eligible adult of the fay… erm, Maddwŷn would you step forward please." She felt her stomach twist inside her, the silence of the gathering spoke more than any words. She avoided looking to her parents, and family, avoided the glare of each member of the chamber, each wondering whether they could swallow their pride and bow to the whims of a foundling elder. After the initial pronouncement set in, it took a few second for the wave of anger to rise, and as Maddwŷn ascended those great stone steps, her people had become ferocious in their distaste. Once again Balthazar created an enchantment to bind the council table behind a silent curtain.
"Best not look at the crowd." He whispered to her as she took her place at the great table.
Jada was basked in the soft blue light of the orb, the rhythm of the horse's footsteps kept her out of sleep, but the heavy velvet blackness of the night weighed upon her, and she felt dreams slipping into her consciousness.
She saw a flicker in the darkness. Her eyes searched beyond the luminescent blanket that enveloped her, but she could find nothing to explain it. The orb rose higher at her silent command, showering more of the forest in its light. She knew she was drawing attention to herself, but was aware that removing the light would only declare her fear to whatever may be present in these unfamiliar woods.
As the orb rose, its light weakened, and allowed Jada's eyes to adjust to the night. She pressed ahead at the same relaxed pace, but she ignored the encroaching dreams, and vigilantly searched the darkness. Flickers of light could be nothing but insects, reflections, or tired imaginings. But in an unusual land she was aware that she may not be the only creature with the benefit of magic. She decided that she would not sleep, until she had left this forest, and she had journeyed far enough to enter the next village without fear.
She saw another flicker. This time she was sure of its presence, between the trees to her left. Without dropping her pace she felt in her robes for her sword, and loosened it from its sheath. A flicker appeared to her right, and vanished.
'Three.' She thought, 'At least.' She noticed two ahead of her flickering in quick succession, like a twinkling through the trees, fear began to squirm in her stomach, she fought the urge to turn, knowing that there was likely to be more behind her, but unwilling to let them know they had lost their element of surprise.
She'd fought before, with sword and with magic, but she hated not knowing what she was up against, and could only comfort herself with the thought that they knew little about her, and she intended to surprise them with her power.
Maddwŷn was still reeling from the announcement. She had been given the instructions, the secrets of the ritual, but had taken in only some of the words. She had been startled, and felt lost, she was no longer one of the people, but had been taken into the inner circle. Although Balthazar had been kind, the others at eyed her with suspicion and distaste, and just before the curtain of silence had fallen, she had heard the angry shouts of the people. She had been separated, and raised above the rest, and now she belonged nowhere.
She pushed those thoughts from her head, and tried to focus on the task at hand as she took flight through the Drongo woods. The official ceremony would take place when she got back, if she got back. If she carried out her task successfully. If she carried out her instructions carefully. The instructions which had been given so clearly, but had hardly been taken in by her young and wandering mind.
She knew that she would find the warrior, that it would be the first outsider she came across on the road, that there was no other in the Drongo woods, and so this had to be them. This had to be the one.
But Maddwŷn had not been prepared for the figure that she saw, bathed in the light of a magical orb. She'd been tempted to turn back, but had felt the inexorable pull, the strength of magic drawing her closer, and her fascination with this creature rose.
She circled the rider, edging closer, watching the woman, tall and proud, she sat with her back rigidly straight, a hooded cloak covered most of her, but her face could be seen reflected in the blue light. Her eyes stared straight ahead into the darkness in front of her, and Maddwŷn knew she must have been seen.
It made no difference, but she was impressed that no fear had shown itself, no weak attempt to hide, or run had been made; this warrior would make a stand. Maddwŷn smiled; perhaps she would enjoy this woman after all.
Some of the fear had subsided; she was sure now that it was not many, but one small light, circling her. She had not moved her hand from her sword hilt, and kept her eyes to the front, averse to showing any weakness, or betraying any knowledge of a presence.
Jada's horse was not as brave, when the light swept in front of them he buckled, Jada held her own, and calmed him, but she was forced to take her hand off her sword, and worse, her eyes off the road. When she looked up again, the light was directly ahead. The same pale blue as her own orb. It hovered, danced even, in front of them, and her horse was now resolute in its refusal. The stand off lasted only a few seconds, before the light began to grow. As it did so, it became brighter, and elongated. Jada shaded her eyes for a second, and when she looked back she could make out the form of a person, a girl behind, or within the light.
Jada had, many times before, instructed an orb to emerge from her outstretched hand, it seemed that now this girl had emerged from an outstretched orb. And there she stood, her soft blue skin still glowing and radiating the magic which permeated her existence, her bare feet sunk into the soft earth, and Jada could see the outline of her figure beneath her soft blue robe.
Jada's hand slowly moved back to the hilt of her sword, she did not want to startle this creature, but she did not want to trust it either.
It looked at her with curiosity, although female in appearance, Jada had seen conjurors create any number of fantastical beasts, none of which could be classed as human. It stretched out a hand towards her horse, he buckled slightly, but she whispered to him, and he began to calm, she stroked his head, his neck and his mane, he whinnied and shook his tale as she pressed the side of his face against her own.
"He's not afraid any more." She said, looking up at Jada.
"No, he isn't." she replied, her tone flat, and steady, no hint of surprise, or curiosity.
"Who are you?" the girl whispered.
"I'm just a traveller. Passing through. I should be on my way."
"Where are you going?" The girl still held the animal in her grip, and Jada knew that she was no longer in control of her own horse.
"I'm just making my way through to the other side of the forest."
"How do you know there is an 'other side'?" Jada felt fear swell in her stomach, and ignored it.
"I'm afraid I have to go."
"But I was told to meet you here."
"Who by?" she immediately cursed herself for falling into the trap.
"By the others. You're not what I expected. But I know it must be you because of your light."
"There are others that can do that. Can summon light out of the dark."
"Others? Here?" The girl nodded. Jada began to feel that perhaps this is what had been drawing her here; perhaps she had felt this centre of magic; where there were others who were like her, different, but alike.
"Do you want to come with me?" The girl's piercing blue eyes drew Jada into them, she had protected herself against more fearsome enemies, but the one she had been fighting against, the gaping loneliness of her travels, had begun to defeat her.
"Yes." She whispered.
"Leave the horse here. He'll be safe."
The girl moved quickly through the woods, despite her bare feet. Jada followed at a stride, her sword drawn, and her magic prickling across her skin, waiting for her command, she wasn't afraid, she told herself, she was prepared.
She glanced behind, she could no longer see her horse, concerned, she drew herself up alongside the girl.
"How far are we going?"
"Not far. Your horse will be safe."
Jada was unsettled, but she couldn't turn back, she knew she had to find out more about these people, to find out if they were like her own, perhaps even if she could stay; to reside once again with sorcerers, but without the binding and restricting principles of her own people. She wanted to find out more about this girl, about these woods, and about her people.
"Do you live in these woods?"
"And there are others, like you, who live here also?"
"Yes, many hundreds of us, and we are all relieved that you have come."
"Why?" The girl slowed, and Jada reduced her pace to match.
"Because it has been so long since anyone else has entered these woods. I have never seen anyone outside of my clan." Jada felt pangs of sympathy, she remembered her own restrictions, and her own desire to break free, and see the world.
"Back there, earlier, you said that I wasn't what you expected, what did you mean by that?" The girl seemed to blush, she looked into the woods for a moment, then met Jada's gaze.
"I was sent to greet a warrior; naturally I thought that… well... I was wrong," She smiled "but I'm not disappointed." Jada felt the girl clasp her left hand, and tugged at her. "I want to show you something."
The girl sped up, and led Jada off the footpath into more treacherous terrain, she still clasped at her sword, concerned, but no longer in any fear of the girl.
Their path swerved from right to left, she was led round trees and over a small ditch, her orb followed dutifully, but without knowing her route she was unable to keep the orb in front. She felt herself loosing all sense of direction, and just as she was about pull out of the girls grasp, they stopped.
The girl let go of Jada's hand and stepped forward into the darkness, a second later the orb caught up, and illuminated the clearing in which they stood.
The ground was hard and well trodden, trees surrounded the circular area, in which nothing grew, but in the centre of the clearing, alone and proud, was a monolith, a standing stone. The girl was reaching out to touch the rock's hard surface. Jada gasped, she had seen monoliths before, and remembered the unease and distrust by which her people looked upon them, and the ancients who had placed them in their sacred places. The stone glowed as the girl touched it, Jada took a step back.
"It likes you." She said.
"I have to go, I must get back to my horse." The girl laughed.
"Alright." She said, turning back to Jada "I just want to show you one last thing." She reached her hand forward and once again clasped Jada's in her own, she wanted to leave, she desperately wanted to leave, but feeling the warmth of the girl's flesh against her own, after so many weeks alone; she was powerless to pull away.
She was led through the clearing, and down an ancient path through the trees, towards a vast moss covered rock face, with just a narrow gorge leading further into the woods, she paused but was pulled forward, into the crevice. Despite the orb, she couldn't see ahead, the light reflected off a mist collected in the narrow ravine, and she felt a haunting silence bearing down upon her. They moved slowly, but it was not long before it opened out into another clearing. This time there were no trees, vast walls cast from the rock surrounded a large flattened space, the blue light reflect on the green moss, to create an eerie hollow light. In the centre of the space lay a flattened stone, raised above the ground on four small pillars, an altar. Suddenly the other word spoken by the sooth that night rushed into her head 'sacrifice'.
Jada pulled away from the girl, ready to enter the gorge once more.
"Not many people know about this place. I wanted to bring you here" Jada's grip tightened on her sword "I wanted us to be alone." She whispered the last words, and as she did so she let go of Jada's hand, and undid the clasp on her robe, letting it fall.
"I… I don't think this is a safe place." Jada whispered, weighed down by the sense of being watched by the very walls. The girl stepped forward, and reached outtowards Jada's face, bringing her forward.
"It is the safest place I know." She whispered back, before pushing her lips against Jada's. She was soft, and delicate in her touch, it had been so long since Jada had felt the lips of another against her own, she felt her sword loosen in her grasp, and as the girl's arms enveloped her, grasping her body, she heard the distant clatter of the metal hitting the ground, before she reached forward to grab the girl, and pulled their bodies together.
The light heaved itself over the trees, and rocks, and into the arena in which Jada lie. It pushed at her, forcing her to wake. Her body was stiff and cold. She pulled the blanket around her, but struggled to remember where she was, and why she was naked.
As the memories began drifting back into her mind, she smiled, and forced herself to wake. She turned to lie on her back and glanced around the clearing, she was still on the stone table, but the girl was gone. She realised she was lying beneath her cloak, but didn't remember getting it.
She was hungry, and her body ached, she decided that it hadn't been the best place she could have chosen to sleep. She yawned, and stretched, before she slowly began to collect her things. As she did so she noticed that the stone table wasn't as smooth a surface as she had first thought, she stepped towards it, and could see, in the familiar etched lines of the ancients, an incantation. She wasn't practised at reading the ancient text, but she recognised some of the words, and realised, with revulsion, that the table had indeed been used for sacrifice.
She shuddered at her own sacrilege, and quickly dressed, before grabbing her sword, and running out through the gorge, back into familiar woodland. She was a good few feet away from the standing stone before she felt secure enough to summon a tracker, she reached her hand out before her, clearing her mind so that she could summon the energy of the earth.
She was tired and aching, she shook herself, and cleared her mind, reaching out to the earth to summon and command its power.
She felt empty, she looked at her outstretched hand; there was no prickling sensation, no familiar green or blue light dancing across her skin. No magic. She looked back at the standing stone; she could just about make it out through the trees. Standing there, watching her as impassively as Death had stared out of his paper cage that night in the sooth's hovel. She realised that it had been a sacrifice she was intended for. And the sacrifice had been made.
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