We returned to Sharrika’s cottage.
They left me outside while they argued, and at first, I couldn’t hear, but they got louder when Tafari opened a window as Sharrika began to make a fire.
“I stopped him, Mama.”
Sharrika’s laugh was another new layer to her personality, something she’d seldom indulged. “Did you really think that was you, Tafari? You haven’t the skill. Not yet.”
Good to know.
There was a brief silence, then Tafari’s voice. “Why is he here?”
The light from the hearth fire crept up the wall, its glow pulsating in the window panes as it cast their shadows; they were standing close, as mother and daughter should be. I didn’t belong here, but I let the feeling go before it took me over. I was tired, and the shock of the sights I’d just witnessed were still being processed. I was prone to do or say something stupid that I’d regret.
Like backhanding your daughter in the mouth? I shook my head, a small mirthless smile on my lips. Yes, something like that.
“I don’t really know,” Sharrika said, “but he may be able to help us.”
“Do you really not remember him?”
“No, I don’t. But I know the Order. They’re warriors as well as priests; he may be able to help.”
“Or if they get to him first, they’ll use him to stop us.”
More silence; Sharrika hadn’t considered that. Tafari was young, but jaded. She’s surrounded by rotting bodies, threw a knife into a man’s chest, not without force, spit on my robe, and threatened to cut my throat. ‘Jaded’ might be an understatement.
I’d have to watch her.
“Bring him inside,” Sharrika said. “We’ll get him dry, and maybe drunk. He’ll talk to us then.”
I was fine with both, and given it was said so openly, I had to wonder if the window staging was also for my benefit. There were few times I felt I was in over my head, but dealing with witches, good or bad, whatever the strata between those categories, was always risky.
Tafari opened the door, heat still behind her eyes. She’d hold that slap against me though she was the initiator.
I hoped it wouldn’t come to killing her, but if being my child meant nothing to her, it had to mean nothing to me if I was to survive. That would be hard to do, but I would do it.
The hearth fire and wine warmed me.
Tafari sulked on her bed as Sharikka tended the fire, keeping the poker handy.
I smiled inwardly; the fact that they trusted steel over spells was a bit ironic. I didn’t point it out.
“Why did you come back? Your Order was exiled, and none of you were to return.”
I took a sip of the dark wine, found it to my liking. “We were exiled, but not disbanded. We went elsewhere to settle, but the momentum of what we were trying to do was lost. We agreed to take leave, and come back to try again in a year’s time.”
“Why a year?”
“Some had families to tend, others needed to replenish their magic. The magic we waged here took a great toll.” I drank more wine, trying to fend off the memories of the screams and sights. No one, it seemed, bothered to clean up. “Why would you stay in the midst of…this?”
“Where would we go, that wouldn’t be attacked again? The invaders have already moved on. These clouds full of lightning bind us in place. It strikes those who try to leave. We can’t figure out a way to break it.”
“And you thought I might be able to help you with that?”
“I do, but only because we want to leave. We’re not going to fight again. Some went ahead to try to stop them, but the ranks are only thinning.”
“And the knight hung by his hands?”
“An example. A display of power to show the futility of steel against magic; they hung him in full armor, and left him to the crows, flies, and the elements. He was tough, and lasted awhile.”
“Tafari killed him.”
“I granted him a mercy we didn’t get,” she said.
“Indeed,” I said. “And the circle of blood?”
Tafari sat up and answered. “Their signature; they cut you, and draw a circle of your own blood around you, with different killing spells that discourage rescuers. Some of them are painfully cruel, and quite gory.”
“But nothing happened to you.”
“I didn’t try to rescue him.” Her tone was mocking, but I ignored it.
“You want me to break the clouds, and you gain your freedom. Are you the only two left alive?”
“The only two that matter,” Sharrika said.
“Seems a waste of binding, since you don’t pose a threat.”
“Who said we didn’t?” Tafari asked.
“Sharrika just told me you weren’t going to fight anymore.”
“They didn’t know that. Truth be told, neither do we.”
Sharrika looked at her; I couldn’t read her expression, but she didn’t refute the statement.
My patience and sense of caution were at an end. “I’m done. I’ll leave in the morning. This war isn’t over, and whatever you two want to do, or not do, doesn’t affect me. There’s no reason for me to free you at cost to myself.”
“Why did you return, then?” Sharrika asked.
“I came back to live out my days, and die in peace. I didn’t know the slaughtered were left to rot, and I didn’t know you were still here until Tafari told me.”
“That’s for you to answer.” I finished the wine.
“You said you’d tell me how we met.”
“I will, but not tonight.” I couldn’t suppress a yawn. My bones felt like warm butter.
Sharrika stood. “You’ve traveled far. Sleep. We’ll revisit this in the morning. Let the fire die.” She headed for her bedroom.
I nodded, already feeling the effects of the wine. I heard the lock click on her door, and Tafari lay back down, humming tunelessly as she turned her back on me. I sensed the guard spell around her.
With the pattering rain, the crackling fire, and the scent of wet lavender laced through with the nightmarish stench of putrefying bodies, my own flesh gave way to exhaustion. I folded my robe for a pillow, and stretching out on the rough hearthside rug, I slept, dreaming of circles of blood floating toward my eyes, and the knight staring at me with empty sockets, his red tears shining in the flashes of silent lightning.