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Nuermar's Last Witch
By A.E. Rought
Samhain Publishing, Ltd.Copyright © 2006 A.E. Rought
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMaelis Keshnar's tears fell unchecked. Dust rose up with each breath to smart and sting her eyes. Crouched as she was, she felt her heart thunder in her chest, an unsteady rhythm as it pounded in impotent rage. She squinted at the pouch her grandmother had forced into her hand before slamming the door on her hiding place.
Maelis was not prepared for it; she hated it already-yet that was a paltry emotion compared to what was to come.
Fireballs were lobbed through the windows to crash in puddles of flame against the back wall. The doorjamb cracked and gave way as the door flew open, crashed against the wall and sent pots and jars flying from their shelves. From her hidden vantage, Maelis watched her grandmother, Niomi, spin to face the door as an intruder swept in with a swirl of black robes. With surreal speed, he closed the distance between them and his large, tattooed hands snatched at the old woman as she turned to flee. Niomi threw her thin arms up in defense. He cinched the fingers of one hand around her wrist and whipped her around to face him.
Niomi's face paled in panic. A guttural cry escaped her lips only to be smothered by his heavy palm. Still, she struggled. Her feet flailed, kicked at his legs and knocked over storage baskets all around them, to no avail; he overpowered her.
He forced her into a chair. With one had pressed against her chest, he searched the floor with the other. His hand came upon a knitting basket which had spilled over in their brief confrontation. His fingers curled around a wound, woolen ball and the cloaked man bound Niomi's wrists with her own yarn.
"Tell me where the Talisman is," he said. "Tell me where to find the Witch."
From her place of hiding, Maelis could not see his face for the darkness within his hood. His voice was disembodied. There was no point on which to focus her rage.
"Tell me, woman!" he snapped, and he moved his ink-worked hands as if he meant to throttle Niomi. He hesitated, his fingers grasping for her and then drew back. His retreat seemed more a gesture of annoyance than sympathy, as if he summoned tenuous inner resolve not to choke Niomi to death in his rage.
Not enough sport in strangling an old woman, Maelis thought, her anger increasing.
"I cannot," Niomi whispered. She looked deep into the darkness of the hood, peered into the face Maelis couldn't see. "Don't you understand? She is my grandchild, all the family I have."
He recoiled again, though whether moved by Niomi's words, or simply still considering her a nuisance, Maelis couldn't tell. Niomi hung her head and acted as though the intruder was no longer present. She waited bravely to die in silence rather than to speak Maelis's name or disclose her whereabouts.
"Very well," the man said. He balled his hands into tight fists, his posture rigid, his voice strained as if he spoke through gritted teeth. "I pray that she is worth it. May the gods have mercy on your soul."
With that sacrilegious petition and a final whirl of his vestments, he walked out and left Niomi tied to a chair in her burning home.
She's safe! Maelis rejoiced. I need only to free her and we will escape all this!
But no sooner had Maelis entertained that thought than another man entered Niomi's home. Like the first man, he sported tattooed hands, blackened robes, but he was slighter of build, shorter than his fellow. He strode straight to the chair where Niomi was bound, reached out, wrapped his hand around the old woman's neck and squeezed.
"Tell me," he growled.
No other words were necessary.
Niomi knew the information he wanted, but she would not give it. Her will did not waver and her body did not struggle as he crushed her throat. Her faded green eyes glared at her murderer until death closed them. Her body went limp and her head slumped down on her chest.
No! Maelis's heart cried out. Not my grandmother! She remained silent where she hid, unable to move, struggling to suppress the primal scream which threatened to break loose.
She could no longer watch; nor could she look away. She seethed in rage of depths unknown as this second cloaked figure ransacked the hut. A black, horrid hate wound its way into her heart and mind as he turned over furniture, shredded cushions with his dagger, knocked shelves off the walls. After a fruitless search, he kicked over an oil lantern and stormed out, without even a glance at the woman he'd killed.
The door, coated in licking tongues of flame, slammed shut and Maelis rushed to her grandmother's side. She knelt in front of that cursed chair and untied Niomi's hands. They were still warm and soft, as they had always been in life. Yet now they were motionless and gave no comfort. Maelis's eyes brimmed with tears as she laid her head in Niomi's lap, like she had done so many times as a child. Maelis kissed her grandmother's hand and her tears soaked into the simple dress the old woman wore.
"No more hiding," Maelis sobbed. "No more pain."
The blaze behind her mocked in crackled laughter.
Just then, a cry rang out in the streets, "Burn them all! Destroy the Witch's village!"
Maelis could see the murderer through the shattered window frame. He flung a lit torch against the side of their house, and the brittle wood and thatch immediately erupted in voracious flames. Ringed in fire, the man appeared inhuman, cloaked in darkness that eddied around him as he leapt astride his horse.
He spurred the steed, and shouted again, "Burn them all! The Talisman is not here!" He raised a whip and his hood fell back, revealing a young man no older than Maelis herself, his face, which might have once been handsome, now chiseled and made ugly with anger and hatred. The great horse turned, thundered away and took Niomi's murderer with it into the dusk.
Her own life was now in danger as the building burned down around her. The roof timbers groaned and gave way. The flames began to snap at Maelis as even her family's singular magick which had so long protected the hut dissolved in the heat. The only escape left to her now was Niomi's tunnel in the cellar leading out to the banks of the pond.
Maelis spun on her heel and ran toward the door to the cellar. The leg of an upturned chair caught her thigh, pitched her off balance and made her stumble. Burning beams crashed around her. Walls collapsed, and a shattered door jamb struck her arm and knocked her to the ground. Fire raged, devoured her home and every other. All around, the screams of the dying faded into the roars of growing fires. She rose on shaking limbs, forced herself to move again, so that her grandmother's sacrifice would not be in vain.
The blaze was nearly too much for Maelis, and her eyes felt raw from heat and smoke. She closed them out of instinct and fumbled blindly for the handle to the cellar door. The scorching metal of a latch singed her palm. Maelis turned it and tumbled against the hard dirt floor below. A rib cracked, her head struck the floor, and consciousness threatened to desert her.
Maelis coughed bloody spittle as she struggled to catch her breath there in the cool shadows. She struggled upright and scrambled her way up the slope and toward the far end, away from the stench of murder and toward the fresh air and wet smell of the healing mud beside Sunar's Pond.
Once through the tunnel and out the other side, Maelis stood alone; an open and easy target. But, her safety was not her concern. Her sudden loss, her impotent rage reigned.
Anger rose up like bitter bile in her throat. So much had changed, both within and without. Where once she knew joy, only sadness remained. Her jaw muscles clenched. She knotted her fist around the pouch in her hand. Her fingers curled so tightly that her knuckles whitened and her fingernails dug into the flesh of her palm. Blood welled up, soaked into the blue velvet, but Maelis didn't care. She couldn't. She could scarcely hold herself upright; her spirit besieged, her battered body threatened collapse. Only her will kept her moving, a will that spun with savage speed into a fury every bit as heated as the flames she'd only just escaped.
Maelis cocked her arm back, fist raised high. No prophecy could soothe her pain. Nothing that this pouch could contain is worth so many lives, she thought.
She inhaled a deep breath and readied herself to heave the bag and its culprit contents. Then, her grandmother's face rose in her mind-her grandmother holding the very pouch she held, and telling Maelis to take it and hide. Maelis had followed Niomi's directions, and in doing so witnessed her grandmother's murder. She died to protect me, Maelis mourned. My grandmother died so that I might live to harness the power this Talisman controls.
That truth struck her brutally, with a nearly physical force.
Her grandmother, the only family that she had ever known, had died to protect Maelis from the armies of Lord Nemenon. The entire village had shared Niomi's fate. The fires, meant for Maelis, had taken them all while she herself remained unscathed. The fires, meant for her, had taken them all. Her furious resolve failed, trickling away like the rivulets and streams feeding the pond by which she stood. She fell to her knees in the mud. Memories, so fresh and painful, deluged her mind.
"They were peaceful!" Maelis cried into the night air. She collapsed to her knees, tears blinding her vision, heartache blinding all else.
In silence Maelis vowed that she would avenge Niomi's death. The cloaked men would feel her wrath. In the pouch hidden close to her breast was the magick talisman to destroy them all. Maelis would discover its contents and harness its powers.
I will bring retribution.
Excerpted from Nuermar's Last Witch by A.E. Rought Copyright © 2006 by A.E. Rought. Excerpted by permission.
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