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Rated: E · Chapter · Fantasy · #1925219
A woman in Zerrick's town has been accused of witchcraft. The problem is he's the witch.
Chapter One

“The guilty cannot escape punishment; they are their own tormentors.”
-II Ja’hal, 51:14

Zerrick tore through the jungle, heart pounding as he leapt over vines and tangled roots of cypress trees. His pouches--full of herbs he’d been collecting since daybreak--slapped his sides as he ran. Ahead he could see the slowly turning vanes of the town’s windmill near the banks of the Divenen River.

“For pity’s sake, Zerrick, come out! Something big is happening in town!” His brother Dellin’s voice cut through the dense foliage. Too close.

Zerrick wasn’t going to make it to the fields before his brother caught him. He could see his brother now, at the edge of the jungle where civilization began in the form of rye crops struggling in this wet foreign soil. As usual his brother wore black, his dark brown hair tied back in a queue, with a pressed white collar falling neatly over his doublet. His heavy brow, so like Father’s, was deeply lined, youth quickly melting away into stolid adulthood. He paced at the edge of the rye field, dark eyes trying to bore a hole into the jungle. Zerrick came to a halt, panting.
Should he make light of it, say he was just pulling a prank? Or could he sneak by, get to the Old Mill where he’d said he’d be studying?
Zerrick pulled out his book and quill from his knapsack--brought along just in case--and dusted dirt and an errant herb from them. With a prayer to Iahmel, Zerrick pulled his own black hair to a pony tail, hoping Dellin wouldn’t notice he was wearing a leather jerkin rather than the usual attire Mother forced him to wear.

There were sugar fields to the left, just a hundred yards away. He might be able to sneak into them, claim he’d been sampling some sugar cane--a reward for study. That sounded good.

He walked quickly but cautiously, lest he give himself away with a snapping twig. Dellin growled, crossing his arms. “Zerrick, for mercy’s sake, act your age! You’re not a boy any longer, and you can’t simply leave town like this! I don’t have time to wait for you. The witch trial is under way right now.”

Ugh. The poor girl, Zerrick thought, his insides twisting. He wondered if Alden was there at the trial. Probably not. What place would an old herbalist have in a courtroom? Zerrick just hoped he got a chance to see the old man before all the herbs he’d collected dried up.
With a whisper of rustling leaves, Zerrick slipped into the cane field. Once he’d gotten a fair distance from the jungle, he called out, “Hey Dellin, over here! Shh, don’t let the slaves find out!” The last was hardly necessary. He hadn’t seen any of the red-skinned slaves in the field all morning. Probably they were with everyone else, watching the trial.

Sighing with exasperation, Dellin walked over. Zerrick left the cane field for one of the many pathways leading into town to meet him, snapping off a piece of cane as he went. He hurriedly cracked it open with his knife and began to chew on it.

When Dellin approached, Zerrick offered him the cane. “I . . . uh, was in the middle of the field. Just a reward for studying. I didn’t want to reveal myself in case the workers heard.” Zerric tried to look shamefaced. Hopefully being in the field would also account for his bedraggled state.

Dellin dismissed him with a hand. “Fine. We’ll talk about it later, when you show me what you learned. For now, we’ve got to get to the courthouse. Father’s addressing the town.”

He began walking, long strides made only more solemn by black hosen and heeled shoes. Zerrick struggled to keep up with him. He tucked away his book and made sure none of the plants peeked out of his pouches. By the westward sinking sun, he realized it must be mid-afternoon. Far longer than he’d planned on being out.

That was the spell the jungle put over him. To lie on the roots of ancient mangrove trees, gathering lilies from the slowly swirling waters of the Divenen River--ah, that was the life! He’d even found some odd tracks and a few blue scales by a cluster of orchids. Alden would recognize them, if only he could find a way to slip away and show them to the old herbalist. Zerrick sighed.

They passed more fields, these of coffee and tobacco, and as they drew closer, Zerrick began to hear a roar of voices spilling out over the wooden palisade wall. He glanced at Dellin as their father’s stern baritone became discernible over the roar.

“We’re too late,” Dellin muttered, his brows knotted. He quickened his pace, thin lips pressed together. Zerrick almost ran to keep up with his taller sibling, passing through the gatehouse and hurrying towards the center of town.

Zerrick paused as they neared the square of the town, which was bordered by the four most important buildings in town: the courthouse, church, gubernatorial lord’s hall, and the clock tower. A mob had gathered. Farmers stood armed with axes and hoes, and small boys threw rocks at the pillories. Women who normally coddled their children were red in the face from screaming. Mr. Edelson, the tailor, a normally quiet man, brandished his scissors and shouted out con-demnations in a voice gone hoarse. The only quiet ones in the crowd were the slaves, on the fringes of the crowd, muttering amongst themselves in their strange tongue, dark heads huddled together, sun shining on their reddish skin.

Dellin plunged into the maelstrom. Zerrick hung back, instead climbing the courthouse steps to get a better view. Directly across from the courthouse, on the top steps of the steepled church of Our Lord Iahmel, stood Zerrick’s father, the town pastor, the Reverend Delwar Dhur. He paced before the crowd, dressed in black silk with a crimson-lined cape, his dark brown hair slicked back to fall unbound down his shoulders.
He called out to the crowd, raising high his silver-studded walking stick. “We cannot let such wickedness continue! I sat before dear Vera Smith, clasping her hand, and prayed to the Almighty to show her salvation, let her confess her heinous ways, and confess them she has! Praise Iahmel, praise the Lord, for He has driven out of her the seed of vilest sin, the contract she made with the evil Angist himself!”
Zerrick shivered, entranced by the sheer power of delivery. Such was the gift of his family: theatrics. Once his father’s speech would have spurred him to go down and join the crowd to raise his voice with the others. Now, it only filled him with dread.
“Burn the witch!” the baker’s wife called, balancing a toddler on one hip.

“Cut out her tongue!” cried Mr. Edelson with a snap of his scissors.

“No more curses!” shouted several boys in unison.

Zerrick spotted his brother climbing the church steps to join his father, and hunched his shoulders so the two wouldn’t see him. There were enough people on the steps that he could hide among them, not that he need fear. When Father began one of his sermons, he’d ignore the Savior Ja’hal himself standing before him.

“Yes, my children, we must punish sin, that we should abolish evil from the minds and souls of mortals. But Iahmel is merciful in His ways; He protects those who confess to Him and are repentant.” Reverend Dhur reached out a white-gloved hand towards the pillories, his features softening.

“She’s a whore!” the tanner’s wife screamed. “She’ll try it again!”

Reverend Dhur raised his hands for silence, and reluctantly the noise settled. He leaned over and conferred with Dellin, and in that moment where pitchforks were lowered and people hushed to listen, Zerrick caught a look at the victim of this fury.

He’d seen her only a few times before. She was a few years older than him, in her early twenties, with a square jaw and brown hair wrapped in a kerchief. Her gaze darted from person to person, while her manacled hands gripped a faded shawl.

Zerrick knew only a little about her. She tilled Lord Hennaker’s land to pay for room and board at the House of Labor. Only the more wretched sort lived there, like indentured servants who’d paid for their passage from the Motherland of Endersey with hard labor, or penniless orphans, or women without prospect. Vera was one of the latter--her father had nine other children to support. Unable to find a husband, Vera’s only choice was the House of Labor.

There were rumors that she supplemented her income with less honorable work, though she was no beauty. She’d been seen cursing farm wives and children who dared call her a woman of the night, and people said her manner was rude and volatile. But Zerrick felt disturbed, watching her pain and the fury of the crowd. He knew she was no witch.

Their conference over, Reverend Dhur placed his white-gloved hand on the woman’s dusty kerchief and spoke in a steady voice. “I have listened to this sinner’s confession, and I believe she will keep her word and stray never again to the Dark Arts. Nevertheless, her soul has been marked, and her family name tainted--”

“How could you! My own daughter!”

This last came from the blacksmith, a large bearded man with tears streaming down his face. The Reverend silenced him. “Now Kimball, it is known that the young, unguided female is the prime target for Angist’s lies.” He addressed the crowd again. “But because she comes of such good family, a family which looks after our dumb animals in their haltering and shoeing, she herself will be punished as would a stray horse. As her soul was branded eternally by the mark of Angist, we will try to counter that with a mark of our own. Upon her upper arm, she will be branded with the holy seven-point star, the mark of our Savior, Ja’hal.” The crowd broke into shouts of approval, but the blacksmith cried out. Zerrick wondered if he was thinking he’d be the one to perform the deed; he was, after all, in charge of forging brands.

Again his father’s voice somehow rose above the noise. “I have consulted with the prosecutor and judge, and we have all agreed on this punishment. She will be marked in pain for her sin, yet the mark will protect her, remind her to whose flock she belongs. If she lives forever more in strict obedience of the Lord’s ways, He may show His favor for the one who bears His mark.” Sound reasoning, Zerrick thought; yet why did it feel so wrong?

Around him, the opposing voices dwindled. Though the black-smith hung his head, it was obvious he agreed with what must be done. Reverend Dhur gave the task of forging and applying the brand to the blacksmith, and scheduled the branding for the coming Thursday. The crowd began to disperse.

Zerrick considered joining his brother and father, but even as he descended the steps of the courthouse, the two of them disappeared into the church without a backwards glance. He told himself he was not going to feel hurt; it was not the first time they had forgotten him. This was better, actually. Now he had a chance to see Alden.

Avoiding the townspeople, Zerrick ducked into the alley behind the courthouse and with a stealth long practiced made his way to Alden’s home. He shivered despite the heat of the afternoon, remembering Vera’s red-rimmed eyes. He would find some excuse to be away from the square the day of the branding--he didn’t think he could bear to watch some poor innocent woman struggle as her father placed a glowing hot brand to her skin.

By the time he reached Alden’s cabin, Zerrick’s nerves had settled. He opened the iron gate and crossed the garden, overgrown with vines climbing the walls. Alden’s house, though within the town walls, managed to create the illusion of sitting by itself in a secluded glen. Trees that must have been planted before Zerrick was born lined the fence, and everywhere things flowered and bore strange fruit, all specimens from Alden’s travels down the coast of Argessa. Before he had settled down to become town healer, Alden had been a great explorer. He had lived with the natives and seen magical creatures that lived in the jungle. He taught Zerrick herb lore, among other things that Zerrick hoped Father never learned about.

Zerrick stepped over a potted palm by the steps and rapped on the door. He heard a low mutter on the other side, then Alden opened the door and pulled him inside, saying, “Come, come, don’t just stand there--lot of commotion around town today, eh? Let’s see what you’ve got for me? Oh, full pouches, very good, good!”

Zerrick blinked at the speed of Alden’s excited speech, but as he breathed in the house’s exotic scents, he relaxed somewhat. He found a chair as Alden went on, “Pitchu for open sores, Javanica pods for malaria, mangrove, curry orchid, tree fern, brown spotted orchid . . . ah, Argessan Lobelia!”

The old man grinned like a child as he emptied Zerrick’s pouches, stuffing plants into glass jars which must have cost him a fortune. Zerrick was pleased to see most of his gatherings went into the proper jars, although a few specimens were thrown into the poison jar and quickly corked. Well, he was only an apprentice. He sat back and stretched out his legs.

The house was cozy, the walls decorated with paintings from Endersey as well as artifacts from local tribes. Almost the entire downstairs was taken up by the research laboratory with only a small kitchen and dining area and no place to receive guests, not that many came to call. It had been different when Alden’s wife was alive. She’d kept a little corner for sitting and chatting by the atrium where Alden grew his ferns, off from the main part of the house. Now, however, every table and chair had plants growing in pots upon it, or glass jars of herbs, or a carefully wrapped book, or strange tools of wood and stone.

Master Alden finished his sorting and returned Zerrick's pouches. He sat back in his faded red velvet chair and regarded Zerrick with watery blue eyes.

Zerrick gazed back at him, forcing himself to be patient. Alden often did this--went from childishly excited to ancient and solemn in a breath. He had to talk to him about the branding, and now Alden would be in the mood to listen. Zerrick glanced at the water clock on the mantel, calculating; he had an hour or so before his family would expect him home for dinner.

Alden ran a hand through his gray hair, leaving a brown streak of dirt. He spoke in a much slower voice. "So, how was your sojourn into the wilderness? I noticed a few interesting scales in one of your pouches. Karuneeb, I believe. Did you see any sign of it? They are quite shy, you know. Usually don't come close to civilization."

"I saw its tracks," Zerrick said, dusting a little leftover soil from his clothes. He'd have to change clothes before dinner of course, but hopefully he wouldn't have to order a bath.

Alden nodded. "It looks like a large rodent with intelligent eyes, blue scales, long prehensile tail, and the most beautiful voice you've ever heard. Magical, naturally. I'm surprised you didn't thrust those at me the moment you came in. You seem distracted--did something happen today? I heard quite a noise from the square." Alden began writing notes in one of his books, glancing up at Zerrick occasionally as he spoke.
Now Zerrick could bring up his concerns. "Master, do you remember Vera Smith? She was accused of witchcraft. Today my father encouraged her to confess, and now her punishment will be a public branding of the Star of Ja'hal on her arm!"

"How gruesome! And unnecessary. I've met the girl; she doesn't have the brains to become an apprentice of magic, much less a full witch." Alden's mouth set into a grim line as he wrote, a slight tremor in his hands the only clue to his feelings in the matter. Was he denying the state of things? Zerrick wondered.

"Are you sure?" Zerrick asked.

Alden looked offended. "Of course! I know all the spellcasters in the colonies, except those terrible renegades in the wilderness, and she could not have trained with any of them. Knowing your father, he probably convinced her she was a witch and was hiding the fact from her own little mind. He seems quite good at inspiring guilt." Alden looked Zerrick up and down and Zerrick flushed. It was all too true.

Alden patted Zerrick on the knee. "Oh now, don't fret. If there’s one thing I can't stand, it's you fretting at every little thing. Relax! This whole trial means nothing. It's just a few folks upset over the malaria outbreak. It will pass." He closed the notebook, setting it aside to study some of Zerrick's findings. With a flick of his fingers, he lit one of the candles to bring more light into the dark room.

"I don't think so," Zerrick said, leaning forward to keep his master's attention. "You should have heard them in the square. Witch fever--like the kind you described from Endersey--has reached Harrow. They were suggesting she be burned alive!" Zerrick's hands clenched the armrests. A trickle of sweat ran down his back beneath the linen shirt.

"Ridiculous," Alden said, waving him off.

"No please, listen to me. It's been coming for some time. First those whispers they used to make about your wife whenever she lost a child--"
"She was the best midwife in town."

"I know that, but her death was unusual. Being struck by lightning? Then the diseases started growing worse, then Father began preaching about the troubles back in Endersey, then this Smith woman, saying curses to children, or so they say--"

"You're fretting again. We've already got the cure for the current diseases and simple words can't hurt children."

Zerrick let out an exasperated sigh. "But they think they can. So what happens if someone catches me making trips to the jungle, or what if one of your cures doesn't work?"

"Is that what you're worried about? Well, you needn't. You're the pastor's son. Who would suspect you? And I'm just an eccentric old man, but a man with some mighty helpful knowledge. No, I don't think they'll challenge either of us." Alden placed a potted fern in Zerrick's lap. "Now, let's get on to the lesson, shall we?"

Zerrick resisted the urge to shove the plant away. "I don't know if I should continue. I'm not sure what is right any more." He glanced around, noting a tribal knife on the bookshelf, the watchful eyes of a stuffed hawk on the table. He thought back to the sentencing, feeling once again the fear, the unease at his father's words. "Father spoke of souls being branded. Is my soul branded with evil? Because I practice witchcraft?" He whispered the last word; even so, it seemed terribly loud. He fought the urge to touch his temple in a sign of protection.

Alden looked weary, as he rose to go to a leather-bound tome on a wooden stand by the door. He leafed through it and came to a page marked with a faded ribbon. "And he spake against the people, saying 'Blame not the craft for the errors of the craftsman.'" He closed the book and turned to Zerrick. "Many think Ja'hal was referring to the innocence of material things and the evil within the human soul, but if you read it within context, Ja'hal was addressing the mob after the warlock Herfastis was caught committing the slaughter of the seven cities with his spells. Ja'hal was not simply speaking of crafts and matter; he was referring directly to the innocence of magic as a primal force."

Zerrick was still unsure. Ever since he'd learned of the works Alden did, he'd wondered where his curiosity would lead him. Master Alden was a good man; he had saved lives with his magic, including Zerrick's, but magic was difficult to place in the moral scheme of things. Wasn't all power evil?

Alden returned to his seat and clasped Zerrick's knee. "Young man, magic is dangerous. Nobody ever disputed that. But it has no taint in and of itself. It can do great good in the right hands. You're just the sort to use it, because you worry about the right of your actions. That's why I chose you for my student."

Zerrick held tightly onto Alden's hand as he tried to understand. "Magic comes from the Goddess; you taught me that, but my father says the Goddess is evil, almost as evil as Angist."

"That is from a very biased look at Creation. The Goddess and God were once one, and regardless of how the error occurred, after Angist separated them they were still two halves of a whole, and that whole is good. The Goddess may be buried beneath Angist's lies, but that does not make everything that She created in the Beginning evil. I refuse to believe it." With that, Alden sat back, glancing over at the water clock.

He sighed. "It's late. Go on home, and think about what we've discussed. You'll find I am right in the end. Practice your studies, and see me tomorrow." He made a gesture to dismiss Zerrick and settled in to his books. Zerrick hesitated a moment, but when Alden showed no signs of responding, Zerrick slowly went to the door.

He wished he'd never seen the mob. All the commotion simply made his conflict worse. And it wasn't the sort of thing he could discuss with people, not that he had any friends to discuss it with. All he had were Alden's words against his father's. He couldn't choose which to believe.


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