Kelda, the local witch, is confronted by a rich man.
|Kelda peered from out under the tattered wool blanket when the sound of rapping against wood woke her. Her small home was bathed in the soft light of morning. She wondered who was at her door. Those who sought her aid usually came at night. The rapping against the rough-hewed door intensified and she sat up. “One moment!” she said as she stood, her voice raspy. She threw her shawl across her back and shoulders and walked toward the door.
“Open up, hag! I know you’ve hidden her from me!” boomed a deep voice from outside her hovel.
Kelda sighed softly. She had been expecting this confrontation, given her visitor from the night before. She glanced at the room and estimated that six hours had passed since she bid the frightened girl farewell. She stopped at the door and counted to three before pulling it open. The large man who had been about to hammer it with his fist almost lost his balance and she smiled inwardly. She took a moment to glance at his entourage, which consisted of two young armed men. She fixed the large man with a tired stare. “What do you want, Erling? Surely a wealthy merchant like yourself has paid staff to work the Art for you.”
“Where is she?” he demanded. “I have men who say they saw her heading toward your home.”
“I haven’t the slightest clue who or what you’re talking about. Now do you mind lowering your voice? I drank a bit too much last night and my head is throbbing.” It was a lie, but it gave her an excuse to close her eyes and rub her temple with her right hand, feigning an attempt to massage away the pain. Quietly she drew on her power to send out a whisper of inquiry into the spirit realm. For the thousandth time, she marveled at how much more effort such an act took during the daytime than in the blackness of night.
She opened her eyes as Erling spoke, his voice somewhat softer but still brimming with violent rage. “Don’t play games with me, old woman. We both know my beloved Aila came to see you last night?”
Kelda wanted to spit in the man’s face when he referred to the girl as his beloved. Instead, she replied almost courteously. “Oh yes, Aila. She came to me in search of an herbal aid to make her wedding night more comfortable so that she could please her intended more readily. I did not realize that you were the lucky man. I should congratulate you on your upcoming nuptials.”
“You know damn well that she and I are to be married, witch. The news has been all over the town for weeks.”
“Has it? I fear I don’t keep up with gossip much.”
“We both know that your livelihood requires you to be in the thick of town gossip. You have a lot of nerve lying to me like that.”
Kelda gave a small shrug of her shoulder as her tone turned sharp. “You have no room to criticize anyone for lying, I think. Yes, I knew who she was when she came to me. And I know exactly why she was so desperate to get away from you.”
“So you admit it! You helped her run.”
“I did. And I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
“I could take you before the duke for this.”
“Would you like your attack dogs to drag me there or will you permit me to walk there on my own two feet?” She had heard this bluff from many powerful men before and she enjoyed letting them know that it didn’t scare her. Unlike most such men, Erling could actually boast a close friendship with the Duke which made the possibility slightly more real. But she also knew that doing so would gain the merchant nothing. The duke knew better than to try to punish those who practiced the Art. Like most people, he relied on witches to work their magic on his behalf and even reprimanding her in public would be enough to make any witch hesitant to ever work for him again.
“I’ll ask you again, hag. Where’s the girl?”
Kelda felt a tug at the back of her mind and closed her eyes. After a moment the short message formed clearly in her mind. She smiled in satisfaction. “She is aboard a boat that is taking her even further beyond your reach than she already is. I can’t say where it is headed, because I neither know nor care.”
“A boat? But how? None have left the docks all night.”
Kelda let out a barking laugh which devolved into a coughing fit. After she recovered, she said, “Do you think I’m foolish enough to send her to find a ship in a port you control? The effort it would take to keep that from you would’ve been nearly impossible. No, it was much simpler to work spells to keep her hidden on the road to Borshing. There are plenty of ship captains and merchants there that were probably too happy to help her just to spite you.”
“Ha!” Erling said. “I know where to start my search for her now. You slipped up, old woman.”
“Perhaps. Then again, I figure I was going to have to tell you something just to get you off my stoop. Besides, a fat lot of good it’ll do you.”
“You seem sure of that.”
“She is miles away. I doubt even your fastest ship could catch up to her even if you do figure out which ship to pursue.” She pondered her next words for a moment while rubbing her arms to improve blood flow. “Especially if this ache in my bones is right and there is a storm coming. So if you decide to go after her, you might want to send a ship you can afford to lose. Maybe even do everyone a favor and pilot it yourself.”
The color drained from Erling’s face at these words. “You’d wreak havoc at sea just to keep her from me?”
“If it had been my choice, you would’ve died in your sleep to protect her. But Aila is a kind soul and wouldn’t hear of it. So I promised to ensure that she got away from you safely. But I gave no details as to just what things I would do to keep that promise. I have no love for men who think they have a right to abuse young girls simply because of their wealth.”
“Men, seize her!” Erling commanded, his nostrils flaring. Kelda fixed the mercenaries behind him with a tired, questioning look. Both shifted uncomfortably. Kelda smiled in satisfaction.
“These young men won’t be seizing me today. I know their families well and they’re indebted to me. When will you learn, Erling, that few are willing to cross the local witch because they know they will need my aid at some point?”
“You hold them hostage by your witchery! You’re a monster!”
Kelda snorted. “You abuse young girls and keep this town in poverty with your outrageous prices. And yet you have the nerve to call me a monster? I spent an entire night working to keep Tove’s baby sister alive when she could barely breathe and asked for nothing more than a couple of eggs for breakfast the next morning. Get out of my sight. And may bad fortune follow you all your days.” She swept her arm out toward him, tracing a symbol in the air with her middle finger. She smiled inwardly, knowing that this should frighten all three men despite the symbol actually being meaningless. Sometimes, theatrics were important. Erling’s escorts gasped and abandoned him. She suspected at least one of them would return begging her to remove whatever curse she might have laid upon them. “I’ll have to be sure to have some tea and snacks on hand,” she thought to herself. “They’re really quite nice boys and deserve to be reassured.”
Erling looked around. For a moment, the battle between his pride and his fear of pushing the witch too far played across his face. In the end, he turned without another word and marched off, trying to act like he had not just been defeated.
Kelda closed the door to her hovel and finally allowed the tension to flow from her body. She thanked her gods that Aila was safe. “Well, I’m up. I suppose I might as well get to work,” she said aloud. “There are herbs to be dried. Plus the baker will likely be by this evening for that protection charm I promised to make for her son before he sets out to sea.”
And with that, the old woman began the rest of her day, humming a happy tune.