The castle was bedecked in scarlet and black, the colors of mourning.
The nobles’ sibilant whispers and the dignified sobbing of the queen’s ladies were bubbles in an aural swamp, rising to sink into the marbled stones of the high-ceilinged hall.
Nakira, the Healers’ leader, stood before the king, her pristine alabaster robe giving her the aspect of a pale spirit gliding through blood.
“I’m sorry, but I could not save her, my king.”
Ohlin’s tears came unbidden, uncontrolled, and in front of his court, unwelcome; his jaw tightened and his shoulders tensed.
I was the only one who saw him clench his fist, though I honestly didn’t think he would use it. The blow sent Nakira sprawling from the dais, the crack of fist on bone was a sudden piercing as she tumbled down into an ungainly heap within the robe, now stained with flecks of blood.
Amid the screams, gasps, and exclamations, she was helped to her feet, her cheek swollen, a trickle of blood in the corner of her mouth.
He then passed his sentence in the most soft, reasonable voice, given the circumstance, as if he was discussing plans for a pleasant outing.
“Take them out of here,” he told the guard, who gave him a curious look.
“She’s alone, your majesty.”
“No, fool. I meant take them all out of here, out of the kingdom. Drive them into the wildlands. Kill any who resist, by whatever means you need to use. Don’t pursue them further; leave them to their fate.”
The cries and screams receded to the deeper voices of the council’s earnest cautions for temperance and mercy, all falling on deaf ears and a stone heart covered in ice; in his grief he was resolute, and would not be swayed.
Nakira looked to the captain of the guard, reading his lips as he held up an index finger: ‘One day.’
They escorted her outside, gave her a horse, and sent her away at a gallop.
He spoke to me in private.
“They’re not to reach the wildlands. The men of your Order will execute them on the way.”
“King Ohlin, it would be more prudent to let them go.”
His gaze on me was deathly calm, his next words holding a concealed dagger poised to cut the thread of my existence if we betrayed him.
“See it done.”
Sharrika was crying, and Tafari simmered below boiling.
We’d be at the palace soon.
Sharikka let go of my arm, struggling to get herself under control
“Do you remember?” I asked.
“Just…just flashes.” She stopped walking, hugged herself tighter. “Dogs, horses, fire and screams. We threw spells back at them, spells that did things, put things, inside their armor. Nakira wouldn’t retreat. She called in the Blood Covens.”
The Blood Covens lived on the fringes of the wastelands, separated even from each other, but they all practiced blood magic to one degree or another, all of it lethal.
“That’s why they use the circles of blood? To protect their territory?”
“Yes, and the hanging of the knights they defeated, in full armor, in the places they were victorious. As I said, strictly to show their power.”
“Then why the binding spell in the clouds?”
“To keep the king’s men from pursuing. It was supposed to lose strength, but…” She looked up just as a long flash slithered among the storm clouds, turning their undersides to lilac, but smelling of sulfur.
“But why would they make the spell bind other witches?”
“They confronted Nakira, said she was weak, said it would be best if they claimed the lands we would have settled in the countryside. They wanted us to join them, but tired as she was, of the whole thing, really, she refused.”
“They killed her?”
“I don’t know. Don’t see a reason why they wouldn’t.” She had to get herself composed again.
Tafari had walked some distance away; that had to stop if she was going to fight.
“Is she going to be alright?”
Sharikka hesitated before she answered. “I don’t know.”
“If she’s going to fight—”
She gave me a sharp look of frustration. “She’s not ready to fight!”
That was a stronger reaction than I was expecting. I gave her a moment, then took her by the forearms to step in and make sure I had her attention.
“She’s my daughter too, and we must make her ready. If you’re going to fight the Blood Covens, you’re going to need all the help you can get. Frankly, I’d let them have the place; it’s full of bloated corpses and blighted lands, and it reeks of carrion and waste.
“It will take years to clean up, so why do you even want it? If they rule, there’ll be no sanctuary for you here.”
She sighed, taking her arms from my hands, a gentle sweep of her own arm indicating all the land within view.
“Without a ruler, this place could be a haven for those of us who don’t practice blood rituals. We’re a vital link in the chain, even if weak. One thing remains true through all our lore: balance is essential to order. If the Blood Covens want to rule, they’ll use us as ambassadors and healers to fool the leaders of the lands they occupy.”
“You’ll become a servant.”
“Yes, but just for the moment. In time we’ll rebuild, restore our numbers, and bite the serpent’s head when we get the chance.”
I sighed at her naivete. “Sharrika, you’re talking about infiltrating, attacking, and killing the leaders of the Blood Covens. They went rogue centuries ago; they’ll see you coming long before you’re prepared, and take hours killing you, and everyone allied with you, for sport.”
My stomach sank as I saw her start to smile in the middle of what I was saying. “That’s where you come in.”
We started back toward the palace; she didn’t take my arm again.
“Finish your story,” she said.