by von Garrett
Hera learns magic under guidance of the witch Nridi. But will the cost be too high?
|(NOTE: I can not publish the full version of this short story due to first publishing rights, but if you enjoy it please feel free to request the full pdf version to review.)
On bare feet Hera passed silently through the cold cobbled streets of Antuun. It was a particularly dark night with thick wisps of cloud drifting high above obscuring the stars and the little light of the crescent moon. Her senses seemed to come alive at night. She could see and hear others long before they noticed her. She didn’t want to be caught out this late, and although the streets were patrolled by Vulnish soldiers, she fancied meeting them no more than she fancied the attention of a drunken sailor.
She slipped from shadow to shadow, pausing regularly to listen for possible danger. The streets were almost eerily quiet apart from the usual scuttling sounds of rodents and the nocturnal lizards that hunted them. Down another street she could hear the sounds of drunken men talking loudly at a tavern. Further off she could hear a patrol of soldiers. Between her and her destination she could hear little that was out of place. And thus was relieved that she would be able make up for lost time.
She reached the river without incident. Her feet were numb with cold. Her thick woollen cloak, with its heavy hood and length coming down passed her knees, kept out the cold damp breeze that came off the river.
The ferryman awaited her. He was a thin elderly man with a long grey wiry beard. Although older than most, his appearance was ordinary of the countless fisherman that lived upon the river. He sat on the dock with a fishing line held idly. To his left was a dim lamp and a small fish no more than ten centimetres long.
“Good evening Odrich,” she said in a hushed tone so that only he could hear.
“Huh,” he turned with a start and glared into the dark with his long fishing knife held at the ready. He looked confused and slightly frightened. He couldn’t see her in the dark until she came closer and he spotted light reflect in her golden eyes. She slipped out of the shadow into the light of the lamp. She was tall for a woman, especially one so young and her skin was the colour of bronze.
“L… lady Hera.” His expression broadened to an almost toothless smile. “I was beginning to think that you were not coming.” “I am here now,” she said sounding more aloof than she intended. “Shall we depart?”
“Yes yes lady,” he replied. She hated being called ‘lady’ but thought Odrich had always meant it kindly. It was his way of expressing respect to a woman of wealth.
He pulled in his line revealing a hook but no bait.
“It seems that the fish are learning,” Hera smiled.
Odrich looked perplexed for a moment and then laughed. “Not this one,” he said holding up the fish he had already caught.
“And a fine catch too,” she joked.
Odrich threw his line and the small fish down into the boat and then stood up with the lamp in hand.
“I suppose we best be on our way then” he said as he began to climb down into the boat one handed. Hera followed behind. Odrich hooked the lamp on the bow of the boat and adjusted the air flow so that it produced a brighter flame. He then untied the tethering rope and set himself down at the oars.
“Right-e-oh then,” He said and then began to paddle the boat out into the river.
The current was not strong and the weather was calm. They crossed without incident to the slum that grew out of the islands in the centre of the river.
Odrich navigated the forest of wooden poles that supported the town above, and the islands on which the inhabitants built their jumbled dwellings. Hera had made this crossing many times in the last two years, but still she lost her bearings in the chaos of human habitation. She could almost swear the place changed every time she made the crossing. She only gained her bearings once they reached the channel that led to the wise woman’s home. The over hanging buildings that stretched out from the islands over the river always looked ready to topple over to her, and indeed she had heard of such things happening: when the weight of the buildings above over stressed the rotting poles supporting them below. The fishing town was a stark contrast to the well ordered streets of her home, which were so near yet seemed like a world away.
They came to a point where they moved out of the channel and under the broad walk dock above, entering into shallower water. On the rocks to either side they saw rats, and the slithering reptiles that stirred slipping into the dark water to avoid the light of the lamp.
They came to a stop where a rope ladder hung down. Odrich put down his oars and reached for the ladder pulling it into the boat. It came out of the water dripping wet with long tendrils of green slim.
“Thank you Odrich,” said Hera as she took hold of the rope ladder, conscious of the cold wet slim on her feet.
“You are most welcome lady Hera,” he replied as she handed him a gold coin from inside her cloak. “You are too kind.” Then looking around found the fish and handed it to her. “As a token of my appreciation.”
“Thank you,” she said. Although this time she was less sincere. She neither wanted to climb the ladder holding a fish nor the smell of fish on her hands. Odrich could see her reluctance.
“I shall hand it to you once your up,” he said.
She smiled to him then began to climb. It had been so awkward the first time she tried to climb the rope ladder some two years past, but now it was a simple enough task. She reached the top and pushed the trap door open and climbed through.
“Don’t forget this,” he said holding up the fish. She hadn’t forgotten but hoped that he had. While she disliked the smell of fish, she also appreciated the gesture. Despite the small size of the fish she knew that to a man of modest means like Odrich it was a generous gift. She realised that he was probably giving up his supper.
“Ah yes. Thank you Odrich,” she said as she reached down and took the fish from him.They exchanged final goodbyes, then she closed the trap door behind her and made her way to the wise woman’s home.
Hera pulled a rope and heard a chiming sound inside the wise woman’s house. Almost immediately she heard a ‘meow meow’ sound and a sleek brown cat came bounding toward her out of the shadows. It bunted its head against her leg and made circles around her legs with its body, before standing up on its back legs to climb up her leg.
“Hello Mezu,” she said scratching the cat’s head.
The cat was purring fiercely when the door opened. Standing in the doorway was a old woman, only a little shorter than Hera. She had a dark complexion and almost black eyes. She wore a black platted wig adored with ochre and red beads. Her clothes were dark and tattered. One might easily mistake them for rags, but for the details: fine lace and embroidery. Her face was deeply lined with age and her expression was stern.
“You certainly took your time,” she croaked.
There was a moment of silence as the two woman regarded one another and then suddenly they both burst into laugher. The wise woman smiled with every inch of her face. Her teeth gleaming like ivory and smile lines fanned out from her eyes.
“It is good to see you again Nridi my old friend.”
“Oh. I’m not that old,” she replied amicably.
“Come in,” the wise woman said. “I have tea waiting inside.”
“A gift from Odrich.” Hera held out the fish to her.
“A kind and selfless man,” Nridi said taking the fish from Hera.
Hera picked up the still purring Mezu and they entered the Nridi’s home. Within it was lit by many candles. Herbs and charms hung from the ceiling. It was a modest dwelling with very few embellishments. Nridi led them into a kitchen, where she placed the fish on a dish. They both rinsed their hands in large wooden bowl of scented water, and then they sat down at a low table. A pot of tea and small cups awaited them. The wise woman waved her hand over the pot and then poured them both a cup of steaming tea, while Hera continued to pet Mezu.
Hera sipped her tea savouring the complex aroma and flavours. She had long since given up asking what was in her tea. Nridi was prone to go on for very long time listing all plants and giving Hera an in depth botanical lesson in the process. The wise woman was deeply passionate about her herbs and could easily rumble until dawn. Hera was only interested to a point, after which she began to tune out. She appreciated the magic of plants but that was not the magic she had come to learn. And her time was limited. She had to be back before dawn.
“Are you hungry?” the old woman asked.
“A little,” Hera replied suddenly aware that she had not eaten since supper an hour before dusk.
“Let me get you something,” said Nridi as she got up leaning heavily on her cane.
“I can do it,” Hera said standing up.
“No no it’s no trouble.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m already up.”
“Just enjoy your tea,” said the old woman as she got to work ladling fish stew into two bowls. She waved her hand over one and it began to steam.
“Here you are,” she said as she placed the bowl in front of Hera, and then placed the other on the floor nearby. “Mezu,” she called and the cat abandoned Hera’s lap and eagerly began devouring the stew.
“Mmm… thank you,” Hera said.
When she had first started visiting the wise woman Hera had hated fish stew thinking it was commoner food, but it had grown on her and Nridi had a way with spices that disguised what would otherwise taste like muddy-fishy goop to Hera’s refined taste. She ate quietly, or at least trying not to make too many slurping noises. Nridi sat sipping her tea. Silence shared between them was never awkward.
After they had finished and everything was cleared away, Hera’s lessons began. Nridi passed Hera a smooth black stone. It fit comfortably in the palm of her hand.
“What is it?” Hera asked.
“Just an ordinary stone,” the woman replied.
Hera looked a little disappointed thinking it had been some sort of magical stone. Nridi held out her hand and Hera handed her back the stone. The wise woman then placed it in the middle of the table. “I want you to move it.” Hera looked confused. “Without touching it,” the wise woman continued. “Today you will learn how to use the magical energies that you have been cultivating.”
Hera stared at the stone uncertain she would be able to do it. She knew Nridi was capable of miracles, but Hera had never quite believed that she too would ever learn how to do them herself.
“First you must meditate. Clear your mind of thought.”
Hera began the meditation exercises that Nridi had taught her. She focused on her breath, as the wise woman lit incense and placed it on the table. At first she struggled to concentrate. Her mind would wander to her many concerns: to what her father said about her needing to consider marrying soon; and, to her concern that her time with the wise woman was limited and that she had to be back before anyone was awake to notice her missing from the house. But as she kept bringing her focus back to her breath the incense began to take affect and aid her mental clarity.
Soon her mind was calm enough that she could move her attention away from her breath and move into a state content-less awareness. Her mind dwelt in emptiness for a time: content. Then a high bell rang, sending ripples across the calm pool that was her mind. This was the signal to move her awareness to deep within her physical body. As she did so she became aware of her heart as a ball of energy (which she perceived as luminous). It radiated out to every part of her body and outside of herself. She could now see Nridi. Not as her physical self, but as this magical energy, many times larger than her own. She could see Mezu no less luminous than herself. And as her awareness expanded she saw all life in the slum and beyond as part of a field of magical energy, each entity a point of luminosity in which the field of magical energy was condensed.
“Now think of the stone,” came Nridi’s soothing voice. It sounded far away and from another world.
Hera’s awareness came back to herself. The stone had only a faint signature within the field, but with effort she could locate it.
“Focus on that point and will the magic into it,” the wise woman instructed.
As Hera focused, the stone began to glow in her perception of it. “Good,” she heard Nridi say. “Just a little more.” Then after a short pause. “Now hold your awareness on the stone while you open your eyes.”
Hera opened her eyes and gazed upon the stone. It looked exactly the same, but now she was acutely aware of the magic within and around her.
“Now envision the stone gently rising an inch, no more, from the table. And then Will that vision into being.” Hera did this and focused hard. Nothing seemed to happen. “You mustn’t have doubts. Know in your heart that it will happen.”
As Hera resolved to do just that, the stone rose off the table exactly as she had intended it to do.
As the weeks went by Hera became more adept at using magic. It was not long before she could make small objects levitate without having to first enter into a mediative state. However, Nridi, insisted that Hera continue to practice mediation so as to better control her emotions. She warned that emotions make magic unpredictable. While magic may answer to a witch’s will, it was also prone to act upon one’s emotions. And thus, one could will magical effects that one did not intend. Nridi claimed that the more that Hera practiced, the more powerful and in control of the power she would become.
Without the incense, Hera found meditation much more difficult. She could focus her breath, but she struggled to keep thoughts from flooding into her mind. Nridi assured her that that was fine and to keep practicing. However, Hera had her doubts.
As Nridi was a healer the next step involved learning healing. The process was little different from lifting the stone, only it involved either, willing the magic to locate the source of the aliment; or, willing it to heal an alignment. Nridi used herbs in her craft, but explained that, while they had their own magic, healing magic could be worked without them. Despite Hera’s struggles with meditation, she quickly learnt to heal very minor wounds.
As her powers increased the meditation seemed less necessary to her. She could move objects, light fires, heat cold tea, and she could heal. Each, except healing, she had learnt over the the course of a single evening. Her awareness of the presence of magic was becoming intuitive and a natural extension of her other senses.
Meanwhile, in her ordinary life her father was becoming increasingly frustrated at her rising after noon. He thought that it was improper that a young woman should stay up all night reading books: as she claimed. No one guessed that she was regularly sneaking out in the dead of the night to meet with a witch who was teaching her her craft.
Her father found her in her room reading a book by the Vulnish comedic poet Lamusi Lombu.
“Hera we need to talk,” he began.
Hera placed the book down on her pillow. “Yes father.”
He sat on the bed beside her looking down awkwardly at his hands for a moment.
“You look troubled father.”
“I am fine,” he said then looking up at her. “But you may not like what I have to say.”
“Okay. What is it?”
He cleared his throat but didn’t continue.
“Really father? just say it,” she said impatiently.
“Well you are a woman now…”
She knew exactly where this was going.
“And I think that it is about time that you found a suitable husband.”
She sighed. She had heard this lecture ever since she was twelve years old.
“I have spoken with the head of the Szhranvoi clan and arranged for you to meet his son Drosvu.”
This took her by surprise. Her father had previously arranged for her to meet with suitors, but none so distinguished as the heir of one of the five merchant clans that ruled the city of Antuun. She was intrigued. Not so much by the prospect of a suitor, but rather by such an unlikely prospect. Her father was a successful businessman but all of her previous suitors had comprised of ship captains, Vulnish merchants, and the occasional soldier. Drosvu ka Szhranvoi would become one of the five most powerful men in Antuun. He would be the leader of a powerful merchant clan and sit upon the Council of Five.
“Will you meet with him?”
“I… I don’t know.”
“Please just come and decide if you like him for yourself.”
“I need time to think.”
“As you wish,” he said. He then stood up. Kissed her on the top of the head. “Drosvu would make a fine husband.”
She said nothing as he left the room.
Despite her deep reservations she eventually agreed to meet the heir of the Szhranvoi merchant clan. After a lunch with the boy’s family and her father, she and Drosvu were left to walk the estate gardens alone so that they could become acquainted. He was younger than her, no older than fourteen years old, but was well mannered and had, what she thought was a pretty face. He stood a full foot shorter than her and was still a few years away from reaching his full stature. He wore fitted emerald-blue robes embroiled with silver birds. His thick straight black hair, flowed half way down back and was held in place with a silver pin in the shape of a humming bird.
She thought that he must have looked like royalty compared to her in her far simpler attire. Her father had brought her a resplendent blue gown for the occasion, she had hated the gaudy colour, but next the the heir, she now regretted not wearing it. Instead she wore a simple dark mahogany long sleeved dress that lightly brushed the ground. She was self conscious of its worn hems and her wild hair.
“These are the most beautiful gardens,” she said to break the silence and avert his attention from her appearance.
“Yes,” He said “Father brought a landscaper from Vuln you know?”
“Father is a well travelled man and says that the Vulnish have the most sophisticated sense of aesthetics of all the peoples of all the kingdoms and empires of the world.”
“So he has been everywhere?” she asked matter of factually.
He paused for a moment then responded “Well… no. But the Vulnish are the most advanced and civilised people in all the world.”
“I am sure,” she replied courteously, with only a hint of sarcasm recalling from her books how the civility of the Vulnish was questionable at best. They were among the few nations that still kept slaves, and their favourite sport involved men fighting to the death. But there was no doubt in her mind that their gardeners were among the most skilled in the world. Tales of Vulnish princesses always included vivid descriptions of lush gardens teeming with bird life, butterflies and flowers. She knew the gardens on the Szhranzoi estate were but a pale reflection of what was possible in the much warmer climate of the Vuln, and these were the most beautifully lavish gardens she had ever seen with her own eyes.
They walked upon gently curving white pebbled paths through a lush world of exotic plants. Strange brightly coloured birds were held in cages at different points along the way. Orchids and other flowers of every colour grew among the foliage, between which a few butterflies fluttered. One deep purple butterfly, larger than Hera’s hand, landed on a bright orange flower nearby. As they walked they came to a small pool full of blue fish. Through the sound of trickling water Hera could hear a pleasant whistling sound but couldn’t locate it’s source.
“What is that sound?” she asked.
“The whistling?” he asked. Then without waiting for an answer “Frogs my father brought from a trader back when I was still a boy.”
She smiled thinking he was still a boy now. “I don’t see any frogs.”
“They are difficult to spot,” he replied. “They change their colour to that of their surroundings.”
She was beginning to enjoy her time on the Szhranvoi estate. The gardens enchanted her and for a time she felt like she was walking through a fairy tale. It was a shame, she thought, that Drosvu was so young and seemed rather dull. He was refined and versed in Vulnish poetry, but seemed also shallow and detached, as if his refinements comprised the entirety of his personality. As the stood quietly admiring the pond she considered that perhaps she could be happy as the mistress of this estate. Where she could walk the gardens and have servants to cater to her every whim. She thought of her sister and how enthralled she would be to see these gardens. While Hera enjoyed tales of adventure and to learn history, her sister loved the tales of romance and of sweet poetry.
“My sister Lela would love it here,” she said to Drosvu.
“She is most welcome any time,” he replied turning to her and looking up into her gold coloured eyes. He bowed slightly to her.
Custom dictated that she was to return a deeper bow, but instead she only nodded maintaining eye contact. He was pretty she thought, and would grow to be a handsome man, but she had no intention on showing him reverence.
This threw him slightly. His mother was the only woman that had stature over him. But he was charmed by Hera. She was nothing like his sisters or any woman he had ever met. She carried herself with more confidence and showed a disinterest in him: which he found tantalising. She was also perhaps the most beautiful woman that he had seen. She was not pretty, but he found beauty in her strong features. Her high check bones and strong, almost masculine jaw. There was a hardness to her, yet her rich bronze skin looked as soft as Vulnish silk. Her eyes were intensely bright. He had not seen anyone with gold eyes before, they reminded him of a cat or some wild thing in the night. He was also intrigued by her slightly dishevelled appearance. He sensed something dangerous and even untamed about her. He found everything about her enthralling. He wanted her to be his. To cage and to tame her.
He reached for her hand and she let him take it.
“I think that I am the luckiest man alive that you are to be my bride,” he said with longing in his voice. She pulled her hand away. Confused he asked “What is the matter my betrothed?” as he reached out again for her hand. She stepped away avoiding his touch.
“I am not your betrothed,” she reprimanded barely masking the venom in her tone.
“Is it not the will of your father?” he asked still baffled.
“There has been a mistake,” she said turning away from him. “It is not my wish.”
“But am I not pleasing to you? I… My father is…”
“Please stop!” she interrupted.
He looked abashed and then angry. “It is not your decision to make,” he said defiantly. “Our fathers have decided. You will be mine.” He reached for her, gripping her arm roughly and forcing her to look at him.
She pulled away causing him to lose balance. His face turned red with shame. No woman, he thought, should be so disrespectful to the heir of the Szhranvoi.
“If you were not so beautiful I would…”
“What!” Hera demanded raising her voice. She stood over him glaring down at him. “What would you do boy!?” she spat the words.
He stood speechless and frightened as Hera stared over him menacingly. But then shame overcame intimidation and he resolved to regain his composure.
“Our fathers have come to an agreement.” His words came out strained and even desperate. Then gaining some confidence he said “When you are mine I shall teach your your place.”
“My… place!” she said contemptuously. Her eyes seemed to be ablaze with the latent power within her.
Drosvu felt her words ring deep inside his head as pain more excruciating than anything he had ever felt in his life. It felt like cold steel had been forced inside of his skull, then the pain spread like sharp liquid fire through his body. Passing down his spine and then spreading throughout his limbs.
Hera could feel the power and will to inflict pain reaching out from her, through the boy’s brain and down through every nerve in his body. He cried out a horrible scream that sounded more animal than human and then he fell backwards.
Her ire began to subside, as realisation of what had just happened hit her. A servant came rushing into the garden to investigate the source of the awful sound, and upon seeing Drosvu lying on the ground came rushing to his aid.
As Hera stood over him, frightened at the power she had just unleashed, he did not move, she saw his eyes were bloodshot and he was frothing at the mouth. For a moment she thought perhaps she had killed him, then he began to convulse violently. The maid was trying to hold him and still the fit that had come over him.
Armed guards came into the garden looking around desperately for any sign of an assailant. “What happened?” one demanded.
“It’s Dosvu. He is sick,” wailed the maid desperately.
“I can help,” Hera suddenly heard herself say. “I am a healer,” she said, revealing her secret for the first time.
She knelt down at his side and placed a hand upon his head. Her healing sense washed over him. She could feel the damage she had caused his nerves and she knew that it was beyond her healing abilities.
“You must pray with me,” she said to the maid holding her hand.
Hera called upon Geet, the goddess of healing and mother of all life. As she spoke the words of prayer, she drew on all the latent magical energy she could call. She had exhausted her own reserve in her assault on the boy. So instead she drew upon what she could from the immediate environment and from the maid’s own field of magic.
The power built up within her and flowed out through her hand into the boy’s body. The spasms eased and then stopped altogether. She silently willed the power to heal the damage she had cause him, while she continued to recite the healing prayers along with the maid. The magic was working, although she knew that the damage was too severe for her to heal on her own.
Drosvu then made a sound. It was little more than a croaked moan at first but then she faintly heard the strained word he was trying to say ‘Witch…’
(Please PM me if you would me like me to send you the full pdf version of this short story to review)