The Warrior and the Witch | A Short Story

 

beautiful witch sitting on wooden bridge over the river and prac
Part One – The Summoning

Ciara woke with a start. Around her, all was silent in the priestesses hut, but for the peaceful breathing of the other sleeping girls. Moonlight streamed in through the doorway where the deerskin curtain had been drawn aside to let in the cool night air. Outside, an owl hooted its cry of triumph as it pounced the unsuspecting victim of its next meal.

Far away, a voice whispered faintly. Perhaps it was just the sound of the breeze flirting amongst the boughs of the trees in the apple orchards. Ciara listened intently. She had been schooled long enough by the Lady of the Lake and the other eight priestesses of Avalon to recognise a Summoning when she heard one.

Strangely, she felt no excitement as she rose from her bed and hurriedly donned the rough clothing of the novice. Deftly, she bound back her long coppery-blonde hair, secured her knife to the belt at her hip, secreted her amulet inside the neck of her tunic, and slipped out into the night.

Ciara had lived all her life at Avalon. The priestesses told her that she had been given as a servant to them by a woman of a local lake tribe when she was only a baby. As she had grown, she had displayed evidence of talents which some would better describe as witchcraft, and so had undertaken her initiation at an early age. It took twenty years to train a druid. Ciara had only another eight to go.

She was tall for a woman. Her eyes, unfathomable green waters, surveyed the world serenely from a pale face dusted with tiny golden freckles. Her looks were only one factor on a long list which set her apart from the other novices. They were generally petite and dark of hair, eye and skin, last remnants of the Old Folk who were born to this land long before the coming of the invaders.  Ciara did not enter into the camaraderie of the girls hut, but discharged her duties and conducted her studies silently, efficiently, and alone. In return, her colleagues shunned her, but Morgan, who was High Priestess and Lady of the Lake, knew as they did not, that Ciara was destined for great things, although as yet a curtain lay drawn across it’s purpose.

Ciara ran silent as a shadow in her soft leather boots along the path by the lake’s edge and on through the apple orchards until she was forced to stop and catch her breath. It was only then that she realised she had entered the marshlands. Who could have summoned her here? Only a few knew the safe way through to the other side. She noticed the swirls and eddies of fog creeping along the ground.  These veils of mist served as a screen between Avalon and the mortal world beyond. In the marshes, however, the mists were thin, and it was possible to stray into the land of men and Christianity. There, she knew, women led a humble, subservient role with no will or rights of their own. She shuddered at such an outrageous insult.

She was about to pick her way back onto dry land when a dark  figure stepped out of the shadows beside her.

“Merlin!” she gasped, jumping with fright.

It was not often that Merlin visited Avalon. When he did, he would usually go straight to Morgan’s hut, and none would see him enter or leave. He was an old man, yet still full of the vigour of life. He was tall and straight, and wore a simple grey robe and cloak. In his right hand he carried a heavy wooden staff. Observing the gleam of an infinity of knowledge which sparked behind those ancient eyes, Ciara suddenly became very aware of her own limitations, and she lowered her head, a study of humility.

“I have a very important task for you.” said Merlin abruptly, without greeting or preamble. “In a few days a young man will pass through the forest beyond the marshlands. His name is Medraut. Some know him as Mordred. He is on his way to join the Court of King Arthur. He must be stopped, and you are the means by which it will be done.”

“I? But how?” Ciara raised alarmed eyes to his.

“He must be killed.” Merlin’s voice was sharp, his gaze searching. Ciara knew he was evaluating her reaction.

“But Mordred is Arthur’s son! I cannot kill the High King’s son!”

“You can, and you must. Arthur’s life depends on it.” replied the old man.

“Then you would be better off sending a warrior against him.”

Merlin shifted impatiently. “Mordred has been raised as a mighty warrior himself by his foster father, King Lot of Orkney. He would not be beaten by any man I could send against him. No, he must be snared by stealth.”

“But I am just an apprentice.” Ciara insisted. “Why choose me?”

“Use your wits, girl!” snapped Merlin. “Those other girls, they are little, dark, and unattractive to men! It is obvious they are pagans, and as such, regarded as witches in the ignorance of the outside world. You know this! But by you, Mordred will be fooled. He will trust you. And when you have him in your power, you must kill him!”

A coldness stole up Ciara’s spine. “You put Arthur on the throne. You are his greatest friend and advisor,” she whispered. “So why is it that you plot the murder of his only son?”

Merlin sighed. He looked out across the wetlands towards the ominous black bulk of the forest brooding on the distant horizon. “Would you believe it is for the good of this land and it’s King?” he asked softly, glancing back at the girl. “Ah, I see you do not! But it is true. I have seen it. Although he does not yet know it himself, Mordred will seek to take from his father his life, his throne, his wife and his lands. If he succeeds, this great realm will revert back to the dark days before Arthur came, leaving us open to attack from the men of the North, and of Ireland and Scotland. I cannot let that happen.”

There was no doubting the authority of Merlin’s visions. He was famed across the land for their accuracy. But there was something else troubling Ciara. “Have you considered that he is also Morgan’s son?” she asked.

“Ah, she may be Mordred’s mother, but Morgan is first and foremost a High Priestess, and she serves this land and King just as we do. She knows where her duty lies,” Merlin replied.

“I hope you are right,” said Ciara doubtfully. “Motherhood forges strong ties.”

“Morgan has borne many children and fostered them all out at birth. She has no ties with any of them,” Merlin exclaimed impatiently.

“True enough,” agreed Ciara, but she did not add that no-one plots murder against any of them, nor are they sons of the High King, and thereby heir to the throne of England.

“Enough! You must leave at once,” urged the old man, breaking into her thoughts. “You will find a river flowing out of the forest at it’s southernmost edge. Follow it upstream for three days, and you will find an old woodsman’s hut. Make it your home. On the evening of the fourth day, Mordred will pass by. I will make it so. You must ensure he breaks his journey. This is your only chance. Should you fail, it will mean  certain death for Arthur, and England will fall. Use all your wiles and magic as you see fit.  There are no rules, no code of ethics or honour in this matter, do you understand? The fate of all England rests on your shoulders.”

And with that he was gone, leaving Ciara alone and shivering in the moonlight. In the distance, she thought she heard the keening lament of a mother mourning the death of a son, but perhaps it was just the sound of the wind howling over the marshes.

Part Two – Lost

It had been a good shot, an excellent shot, and now the boar lay dead on the ground with Mordred’s arrow in its side. But what was he to do with the beast, and where were the others? It was not until this moment that he realised he was alone, and with the excitement of the chase and the thrill of the kill already a fading memory, Mordred was not pleased at the prospect of facing a night alone in the forest, or abandoning his kill to the wolves and bears. Cursing, he swung round his mount and retraced his steps. At least… he thought he had come this way, but he could not be sure.

True enough that the forest was safe from villains since Arthur had come to the throne, but strange stories were whispered still, and with the last of the daylight rapidly soaking away through the branches overhead, Mordred was inclined to believe them.

Mordred had lived with his foster parents, King Lot of Orkney and his wife Morgause ever since he could remember. He knew that his mother was Morgan, that she was in some way related to Morgause, but he had not seen her for many a year. The unknown identity of his father did not concern him. He had always looked upon Lot as his father, and Lot’s four sons as his brothers. What did concern him, however, was Lot’s apparent hatred for the High King. Yet he dismissed this as the petty desire of a lesser King for Arthur’s throne. Lot’s zealous ambition was well known. Yet though he plotted and schemed with the other minor Kings, no action was ever taken. It also angered Lot how Morgause favoured her foster son over her own sons. She insisted that Mordred possessed a much greater claim to the throne than any of them, yet always refused to explain. Mordred wondered if he had inherited this claim through his mother. Morgan was after all the daughter of Ygraine, who was widow of Uther Pendragon. Ygraine was also mother to Arthur. This would indeed link him to the High King as nephew to Uncle, and so to the throne. As Gwenhyvaer, Arthur’s Queen, had not yet borne him any sons, that would make him next in line, and Arthur’s heir.

Mordred had kept his thoughts to himself, but as he came of age, he had announced his intentions to present himself at the High Court. Graciously, some might say eagerly, Morgause saw fit to send all her sons to serve the High King, despite her husband’s fury.

It was upon entering the forest that the five young men had sighted the boar, and sensing an opportunity for sport and adventure, and also to part themselves from the long slow train of guards, gifts and servants Morgause had equipped them with, they had all recklessly given chase.

For three days and nights they had followed the trail of this elusive beast, one by one becoming separated from the group. Now, they were lost, and Mordred bitterly regretted their rash decision. He resolved to continue on alone. He would catch up with the others at King Arthur’s court.

Part Three – Mordred Speaks…

…as I approached the little thatched hovel, a young woman came to the doorstep. She was smiling. Thick golden light carved her figure from darkness. The evening dusk settled on her roof like a hen to the nest. In the sky, the rising moon cast silver radiance on her hair, and the stars sparked in response to those in her eyes. She was beautiful, not in the coarse way of a peasant woodcutter’s daughter, but unsullied and chaste as a noblewoman, and I wondered vaguely what it was that could have brought her to this lonely place. I dismounted, and left my horse free to wander. When the lady took my hand and drew me into her home, I did not resist. I was weary, lonely, hungry, and vulnerable to her power. I should have been more aware, but I never suspected anything untoward. I went with her inside…

Part Four – Ciara Speaks…

…he was not what I expected, and my heart beat wildly. He was not much more than a boy, normal in every way, not the monster I had been led to believe. For a moment, my nerve failed me. But the consequences of my failure were more than I could bear. I steeled my heart, focused my mind on the task. It should be easy. As Merlin had said, the young man trusted me completely. Bewitched by my looks and my smile. Foolish, shallow boy!

But I could see he was hungry, so I gave him food, sealing his trust. He was thirsty, so I gave him wine, dulling his senses. And all the while we chatted and smiled, whilst I planned his murder. He was sleepy, content. Now would be a good time to do it. My priestesses knife lay on the table. I had used it for the innocent purpose of slicing the bread. But I could just as easily use it to slit his throat, or stab him in the heart. It would be done before he even realised what was happening. I had never killed a person, although I had carried out many animal sacrifices. It would not be so hard to do.

But I looked in his eyes, observed his smile, and something stayed my hand. He yawned. Perhaps let him sleep, and then smother him with the blankets. He would know nothing about it. Surely the kindest method. So I let him sleep. But how could I be so naive? Like a sleeping child, in repose his face relaxed into that of an angel, and I knew I could not kill him so dishonourably, whatever Merlin had said. I don’t know how long I stood there, listening to his soft breathing,  watching the fluttering of his dreaming eyes, observing the rise and fall of life within his breast, but  I came to the conclusion that killing was not the answer. There must be another way. I would bind him to me, so that he could not act against my command. The thought that he would always be mine ignited a raging fire of gladness somewhere within me.

When he woke, he smiled to see me standing guard over him. I was already weaving my spell about him. I led him outside. It was still dark, but dawn was not far away. I had to act quickly before daylight came to steal him away from me. So there in a clearing, we lay together under the stars like the wild creatures, and together we created a child. But not just any child. This child was a mingling of our blood, of our beings, the product of our love and good intent, the seed of the magic which would forever bind us. Or so I thought. We curled up with our limbs entwined, and he slept while I pondered and exulted. I was greater than Merlin. Or so I thought.

When the dawn came to rouse him, I happily told him the good news. But his face lost its smile. There was a darkness in his eye I had not noticed before. And he cursed me. Yes, he actually cursed me. I looked at the hardness in the set of his jaw, and the fierce determination in his expression. And I realised too late that only death would prevent this man from carrying out his fate. Now I knew that Merlin was right. And the task had just got harder. For not only had I lost the power and protection of the night, but I had lost his trust, and worst of all, I must now make haste to kill the father of my unborn child. Witch or no, not many women would find that easy to do.

Already he was catching his horse, and making to ride away from me. What could I do? I used the first plan which came into my head…

Part Five – Witchcraft

…I looked back at her as I rode away, and mistook the desperation on her face as that of a destitute woman, but I was wrong. But I am only a man, how could I know? We only act, we don’t analyse. Moreover, I was just a hot-headed youth. It was hard to think clearly with the heavy throbbing magic of that place pulsing through me, robbing me of what little intellect and cunning I possessed. I should have killed her. But she was just a woman, one I would never encounter again, what threat could she possibly be? I never wondered at her claim. I was ignorant of women’s ways. If she said a child was growing within her, why would I not believe it? Certainly my ssorceress foster-mother Morgause would have ways of determining the early stirrings of life, why not this witch also?

And as I thought of Morgause, she unfolded before me, a grainy image at first, then filling in with depth and colour. I almost rode her down in my haste to be away. What was she doing here? No doubt she had spied on me throughout my journey, ensuring my safety through magical means. Or perhaps all this was her doing, some secret plan with an outcome known only to her. I harboured no love for this woman, for her weird obsessive passion for me had stifled me all my life. But fear of her dark ways forced a healthy respect, and I knew she would do anything for me. And I mean anything. So I stopped.

“Ah, put away your frown, son!” she cried joyously. This was ominous; gladness was not one of her most obvious emotions. “Do not turn your back on that poor woman! Bring her home to me, and I will care for her as the daughter I never had. I will raise your son to be the great King he will one day inevitably be, just as I raised you.” She came up to me then, and clasped hold of my leg. There was a pleading note to her voice I had never heard before, a begging quality to her eye that I had never seen and she clung to my leg as if her life depended on it. I kicked myself free. Something was not right.

This woman looked like Morgause. She had the same thinning red hair, over curled and coloured in vain attempt to hold on to her faded youth. The skin hung in slack folds at her neck, and the waist was greatly thickened, obvious despite the cut of her dress and folds of fabric employed in desperate attempt to disguise it. Too much make-up, too much ornamentation, Morgause was a slave to the art of overplaying her assets in order to delay her inevitable slide into the mire of old age. She fooled no-one however, but herself. I eyed her in distaste. This woman looked like Morgause, but I knew it was not her, for Morgause would never welcome, or even tolerate, any woman who came between us. As far as she was concerned, she herself was the only woman allowed in my life, and she would work to ensure it. So I rode away, fuming with murderous intent…

Part Six – Shape Shifter

…shape shifting is a very ancient and dangerous magic, and as a novice, I had not yet mastered the technique. My attempt as Morgause had not been convincing, but then I had never met the woman, and had only Mordred’s memories of her to rely on. I shivered back into my true form, and crouched on the ground, weak and sick from my efforts. But there was someone I knew very well, whom I could impersonate most effectively, and who might have a powerful impact on Mordred. To use the magic again so soon could be devastating, but what choice did I have? My powers were waning now, I was so exhausted, and the brightness of dawn was beginning to share daylight across the land. I had to work fast…

Part Seven – Attack

…I spun my horse around and galloped back into the clearing. Even I was surprised at the ferocity of my anger, but I intended to put an end to this once and for all. Her figure was crouched on the ground, back to me. She seemed smaller than I remembered. But I didn’t care. I rode straight at her. She didn’t move. I flung myself to the ground, and began pummelling her with my fists. She did not resist, but lay with her face pressed to the ground, trying vainly to protect her head with her arm. I drew my sword, intending to kill, but suddenly my anger was spent, as rapidly as it had come. What had I done?

There was screaming, and blood everywhere. I dropped to my knees beside her still, crumpled form. She seemed so tiny, almost to the point of frailty. Her cheek was white as snow, her hair black and tangled across her face. But I thought her hair was red…

Shakily, I brushed the hair gently aside. The face I stared into was not that of the witch girl, but my birth-mother, Morgan, Lady of the Lake. I had just killed the High Priestess. My life would be forfeit. They would come looking for me. I had to seek Arthur’s protection. Only he could save me now. I caught my horse and rode away from that ill-fated place without a backward glance…

Part Eight – Unsung Glory

Ciara hovered between life and death. She watched Mordred ride away into the sunrise, and cursed her weakness. She felt sure Merlin was wrong about Mordred. He was honourable and brave, a man to fight for the King not against him, of that she was certain. But she was young and naive, and she had failed. What was she to do? If she lived, she knew her child would be used as ruthlessly by the Priesthood as she had been, an instrument in their power games. She did not want that.  She could not return to Avalon. Morgan would never accept the return of her son’s would-be murderer. Merlin would surely have her cast out for having failed him. Worst of all, she could no longer summon any belief in the Goddess, and how could she serve without belief? She could not go to the village of her birth-mother. She had no skill to offer them, and anyway, they would not suffer a witch among them. She could not follow Mordred to King Arthur’s court, for Mordred had made it quite clear he did not want her or the child. The King would no doubt have her burned at the stake for her treason.

In her distraught frame of mind, there seemed only one option. Calmly resolved, she dragged her battered body downstream to where the river flowed into a deep rocky basin. She hesitated a moment in silent contemplation of the flat black water. Even the rising sun could not light it. It drew her into its dark depths. She flung herself into its oily smoothness, felt it close its icy fingers over her head. She sank to the murky bottom. Weeds reached out hungrily through the watery twilight to wrap themselves about her limbs. It was rare they were gifted the luxury of human flesh, they would not let her return to the surface where she belonged.

Panic surged within her, as she struggled violently, ineffectually to free herself. The last air escaped from her lips as she breathed deeply, and water rushed in to fill her lungs. 

No-one knew of her sacrifice, and no-one mourned. She had thought her passing would help Mordred, but it was too late. The damage was done, he could not be swayed, his path was chosen. Her memory would always return to torture and embitter him. The fear of her son, his heir and rival, one day appearing to challenge him, always haunted him. How much better it would have been, had she remained alive to add her powers to his, to soften his heart and gently divert him from his fate.

Yet so she won her unsung glory.

One Comment on “The Warrior and the Witch | A Short Story

  1. Pingback: Short Stories | aliisaacstoryteller

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