by SJ Longtaile
A wandering rogue encounters a witch unlike any other.
It’s not that Lenardi went looking for trouble. Trouble came looking for him, and more often than not, it found him, usually at the most inopportune moments. It’d been that way most of his life, and here in the bustling capital of Brydain, was no different.
Certainly, most would argue that seducing and subsequently bedding the minister’s only daughter hadn’t been the grandest of ideas if one was trying to avoid trouble. But then, Lenardi hadn’t been trying to avoid trouble, now had he? After all, a little trouble never hurt anyone. He tried to remember that as he leapt out a third story window, fleeing the wrath of an outraged, aristocratic Brydain of a father. Positive thinking is the key to surviving a sort of peril, even angry fathers, or so he’d been told. Though, positive thinking is a little difficult to maintain over all the shouting and the sinking feeling in his gut as the ground seemed to hurtle itself up at him.
Lenardi wasn’t a religious man, nor a particularly superstitious one, but he did consider himself to be unusually lucky because he knew not one other who could leap from a third story window and land not with a splat on the cobblestones, but with a thump on the roof of an unsuspecting carriage that just so happened to be passing by at exactly the right moment.
Steadying himself took less effort for a person with his balance than it might another, even with the carriage moving. Dusting himself off a little, straightening his clothes, making sure he had all his effects, and tugging his coat into place, Lenardi stretched,”All in a night’s work,”he sighed contentedly to himself. Alas, he wasn’t quite out of trouble yet it seemed.
“There! After him! He’s on top of a carriage!” It was the minister’s personal guards, not as far behind him as he would have liked.
He found himself cursing his unintentional mount in that moment, while wondering what kind of minister had his own personal guard?
‘The kind you probably shouldn’t have slighted,’ a little voice in the back of his head that sounded suspiciously like his mother whispered. He found he couldn’t argue, not for lack of trying, seeing as he was rather preoccupied.
The carriage helpfully turned down a side street. Perfect for making a stealthy get away. Lenardi hopped down from the carriage roof and smoothly wove himself into the throngs of people. Though, he wasn’t as fast as he probably should have been, he was still only half a wake, for too soon he heard the increasingly familiar sound of the guards.
“There he is! Over there!”
Lenardi was beginning to think the red of his coat, despite the years of fading and wear, was a tad conspicuous. To rectify this and avoid capture, he slipped down a small alley way, making himself as small as possible, which, considering him, was smaller than most would think, he hid behind a row of barrels. There he waited, tucked neatly in the shadows, for the guards to pass. It didn’t take long. They soon filed into the alley with shouts of, “He went this way,” and, “Find him, don’t let him escape.”
Personally, Lenardi thought the whole ordeal was rather melodramatic, he slept with the girl, not rob her or something even more unsavory, hardly an offence that warranted a manhunt. That was just Brydain, Lenardi supposed, humorless and unforgiving.
When the last of the guards had passed, he stepped out of his hiding spot, rising to his true size, and after a thought, took off his coat, turned it inside out to its unassuming brown then put it back on. Can never be too careful when avoiding capture of any sort, he believed. With that, he set out on his way, in the opposite direction of the minister’s guards.
Brydain was a bleak place on a good day, had been since long before Lenardi had even been born so they say. Bleakness didn’t mean uninteresting though. Despite the near constant cloud cover and sporadic rain fall, so far his visit to the greatest empire west of the Rhine hadn’t been for naught, as he’d feared. His foray into the minister’s daughter’s chamber aside, Brydain’s capital city of Lynden had lived up to its reputation. While Brydain as an empire was typically warlike, intimidating, and all around powerful, Lynden was still renowned for its markets and bountiful trading harbor, both of which had not disappointed. Silks, furs, spices, precious stones and metals, wares of all kinds including the new and exotic. It wasn’t just foreigners and traders who did business here, many locals made their living here too.
Lenardi couldn’t help but be wistfully reminded of home as he wandered through the crowds, in between stalls, passing by venders.
There was one thing about Lynden and Brydain as a whole that Lenardi did not like, however, something he was starkly reminded of as he caught a glimpse of the wall behind a stall that’d caught his interest.
They had laws here that outright banned the use of magic and condemned anyone caught or even suspected of practicing magic. It was all severely archaic and old fashioned compared to the majority of the world, but is was also terribly normal for Brydain. This country had been fiercely opposed to magic for the last two hundred and fifty years, since the Reign of Serpents began.
The first Serpent to take the throne all that time ago had been cursed with a weak body. The curse was punishment for a grievous slight he’d committed against a witch, or so the story goes. Angered by the curse, he hunted the witch down and demanded she remove it, when she refused he had her burned at the stake. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t realize until it was too late, a witch’s curse cannot be undone by any other than the one who placed it, not even death herself can undo that kind of magic.
According to the legend, the curse on the royal family has remained ever since, passed on through the generations. The ban on magic began with that curse, and the curse, it is believed, is also responsible for the ever present clouds that loom over Brydain.
Lenardi can’t say he knows much about curses and the like, or that he really believes the stories, but if there is one thing he does believe in, it’s magic. It runs in his blood after all.
“What’s that here?” He asked the owner of the stall, gesturing with an upward tilt of his head to the wall.
The vender, an older man, gruff around the edges, turned to observe the posters plastered to the faded brickwork of the wall. “Aye, tha’d be the witch trial,” he mused, nodding in recognition, proceeding to explain.”Every month er so the queen herself sentences a few special prisoners from High Gate. D’is month they’ve got ‘em a real live witch that they do. So the queen has ordered a special trail to be had.”
Lenardi had to fight the scowl that wanted to settle on his face, forcing himself to speak in an idle, curious tone. “Oh I see. When is it?”
The man gave him an odd look, probably wondering why Lenardi wanted to know. He shrugged before hollering across the street to another vender. “Oy Tommy! When’s that witch bein’ tried?”
There was pause before another man was heard but not seen through the crowd of people. “Ah, thought it was today wan’ it?
“Right!” the vender called before turning back to Lenardi. “Tha’d be today, mate. Half past noon.”
Lenardi nodded, trying not to grimace. “I see. Thank you,” he said politely, turning to leave.
“Wrong way, mate,” the vender said,”If yer lookin’ to see that trial, it’s in the square. Three blocks that way to the left.”
Lenardi turned around, muttering a brief ‘thanks’.
“Yer not from ‘round here, are ye,'” the vender commented.
Lenardi paused,”What makes you say that?”
The vendor eyed him, "That accent o' yers, it ain't something we hear a lot round these parts."
Lenardi couldn’t help the wry smile that tugged at his cheeks,”No. I ain’t from ‘round here,” he replied, smoothly shifting his speech to mimic the vender’s low class Bryd accent. If he was honest with himself, he hadn’t even noticed he’d reverted back to his natural accident. Not that it really mattered, Brydain had no laws against being from another country.
As Lenardi left the markets, he could feel the vender’s stare on his back, he paid no mind to it because now he had an objective. So, he made his way with singleminded determination to the square, where the witch was to be tried.
Two and a half blocks later, Lenardi came upon a procession of royal guards clad in gleaming ceremonial armor and dark green velvets, half on foot and half astride white stallions. These guards led a troupe of soldiers in plain grey leathers and plate armor who escorted a line of prisoners in chains. That wasn’t what caught Lenardi’s attention though.
At the very end of the procession an iron caged on wheels pulled by oxen, accompanied by four fierce looking soldiers in black on either side. And within the cage, huddled in the back corner, chained and looking over all haggard, was the ‘witch’. The witch appeared small in the cage, nothing but a bundle of rags and long tangled black hair, but the eyes that peered through the curtain of black were positively vicious, glowing a hellfire yellow.
When those burning orbs met Lenardi’s, even it was only for a moment, it felt as if a hole had been burned into his soul. Lenardi hadn’t time to dwell on that unpleasant feeling, however, because no sooner had their eyes met, there was an awful, blood curdling snarl and all of a sudden, the oxen pulling the cage lurched up in a great panic, the horses of the black clad soldiers too.
All the commotion frightened the people who’d gathered on the sides of the road to watch, causing even more of a ruckus. Women screamed, soldiers shouted, horses squealed, the oxen thrashed, and then, there was a great creaking and groaning of metal as the cage was rocked off it’s wheels, crashing onto it’s side, taking the oxen down with it. There was a terrifying shrieking of metal as the witch, who’d rocked the cage over, pried open the cage open with his bare hands and launched himself forward.
The witch launched himself in Lenardi's direction, as if recognizing something in him and was consequently drawn to him. Unfortunately, the witch’s escape was in vein, for he was still chained, and chained to the cage it seemed, as he was forced to a sudden and obviously very painful halt. The chains, Lenardi saw, were attached to a collar around his neck and cuffs that bound his wrists and ankles, like an animal. Lenardi resisted the urge to just lunge forward and help a kindred spirit. Now was not the opportune moment, he couldn’t give himself away just yet.
Despite the almost pleading look in those strange yellow eyes, the desperate expression on the beaten and blood stained face, Lenardi forced himself to take a step backwards as the black soldiers came forward to seize the witch. Two took hold of his arms to drag him back, another reached for the chain connected to the collar around his neck. There was a flash of teeth and suddenly, the soldier howled in pain. The witch had twisted around and bitten the poor sod with apparently sharp teeth, and latched onto him with a chilling snarl, refusing to let go.
“Get it off! Get it off!” the soldier screamed, trying to shake his hand around in an attempt to get his hand back, but the frantic movement only made it worse, the witch’s teeth sinking deeper, his jaw locking.
The fourth soldier stepped up with decisively and brought his heavy boot down on the witch’s outstretched knee with a sickening crack.
Lenardi flinched, sympathetic pains tingling in his own knee. But the witch, to his credit, didn’t make a sound, only gasped in shock, releasing the soldier’s hand and clasping his own to his injured leg.
“Get it back in the cage,” the fourth soldier ordered before moving to the oxen wrangler; ordering him to get the frightened creatures up and under control.
In no time at all, the fourth soldier had gotten the end of the procession moving again, leaving the onlookers in relatively stunned silence.
By the time the people, Lenardi included, had recovered from the shock, the procession was long gone and the whispering began.
“That was a witch?”
“More like a monster.”
“Did you see those eyes?”
“Good riddance, the devil in human form.”
Those words snapped Lenardi out of the shock, barely restraining a snarl of his own, he carried on his way, following the procession to the square. It was time to put an end to this madness.
The clouds above seemed to agree, they always did whiner he was about to do something dramatic, oh how they loved a good show. If it was a show they wanted, then it was a show they would get. The clouds wept with joy as it began to rain and they drew ever closer, anticipating what was to come, though what that would was only known to them. Lenardi had a good feeling about the outcome of this day, for he could smell adventure in the air.