A 19th-Century Princess has to deal with Hunters going after her Witch.
This story is set in my Witchbound universe.
You can also read more here.
One of the things that the princely protocol did not prepare Alba Malcastria for: dealing with a veritable storm of sorcery.
From her hiding place, no matter how unbecoming it was for one of her station, she shook like a leaf caught in the winds of autumn. Large drops of sweat shivered down her neck as she tended her ear to the noise coming from outside.
Screams and the booming blast of pistols. That horrible shriek like grinding ice whenever the Witch summoned one of her shadow hands from places unseen.
And more pained shouts as those found their target.
Something creaked and with the terrible noise of grieving branches fell upon the ground.
Was leveling her Principality’s woods needed to subdue their assailants?
The Witch could show some restraint, for once.
She was supposed to know better.
She was a Witch.
Though if her table manners were any indication, after five hundred years of sleep…
Alba stopped her musings as she realized she could once again hear her breath.
Is this horrible fight finally over?
At least she could come out of her hiding spot – and for a Princess, a hollow tree wasn’t the most pleasant place. Especially one that might hide all sort of malicious critters tickling and skittering over her skin, maybe about to bite her at the base of her neck…
“Mmhnhn-” she lamented, trying to keep her voice down.
But no other noise came, save for the rustle of the leaves in the wind.
Was it safe to come out?
She tentatively craned her neck towards the entrance.
Only for someone to appear before it.
“Ah!” Alba yelped, reaching for her knife. A ceremonial piece, but the blade was still sharp.
“All is quiet,” said a smoky voice that felt like sleepy ink making its way into her ears. The figure was hard to see with sunlight peering behind her, but she recognized her slender frame and the waterfall of black hair that reached her knees. “You can come out. Your Highness.”
“Good heavens.” She pulled herself up and, once outside (at last!) of that hideous place, she took a moment to look at herself, in case a pernicious spider was happily climbing her back.
A few dirty stains streaked her travel dress, like a drunken painter was trying to make her sit better with nature. But other than that, she was fine. She still gave herself a few pats all over. Just to make sure.
“Ooof,” she sighed at last, once she was sure no bug or critter would take her for a ride. She passed her fingers through her blonde hair and stepped out from the tree.
Into a battle field.
She frowned, hesitating for a moment.
She had heard the stories of Europe put into the meat-grinder by Napoleon’s ambitions, nary fifty years before. Her Father had often told her about the holes in the ground bitten by the cannons, the sickly-sweet smell of death in the air, the towers of smoke.
What used to be a peaceful meadow was now reduced to a blasted heap of charred grass, overturned soil and sizzling puddles of some liquid that emitted acrid fumes. Pieces of bloodied clothes lay about, though thankfully the Witch had followed her instructions and did not kill their pursuers.
Three of them, this time.
Pinned down to the ground by the Witch’s art, thin shadows spread like a weightless spiderweb.
A smaller party – which meant the wretched Sparagmos was growing more confident.
She regarded the closest of the three, a black-bearded man with a glass eye and ominous scars running on the left side of his face. The other one was a bald albino with black eyes who squared her with a bored look, as if being immobilized and at her mercy was a minor annoyance.
The third had his face covered in blood and did not seem conscious, even though was still breathing.
She did not have particular qualms about the life of Witch-Hunters such as these, but every death would only push Sparagmos to become more desperate.
“What an inspiring view,” she started with her patented condescending grin (the one she had trained to perfection in front of her wall mirrors). “Three chicken thieves caught in the act. The Duke must be running out of respectable mercenaries.”
“Shut up, you who-” barked the albino, suddenly coming back to life, but the shadows skittering over his body shivered and covered his mouth, turning the word he was about to spell into a series of angry muffled shouts.
Alba turned her blue eyes towards the line of trees. Up there, she could faintly see a dark form nested between the branches like a raven.
Her eyes moved from the albino to Blackbeard, who might have been their boss, but at any rate was the only one with his mouth still in working order – and stopped at the sight of a curved knife softly smoking against the grass.
The blade’s edge glistened gold and the plants around it had withered and died, curling up as if under an intense heat.
Some kind of new trick to get rid of her guardian? But there was something weird about it…
She walked towards the weapon and picked it up, showing a disinterested look to Blackbeard, but he saw her gesture and laughed.
“For being a chicken thief, I got your attack dog good!”
Alba strained a smile, shaking her head.
“Small minds are always boisterous.”
But she noticed the few droplets of golden ichor running down the gilded blade.
That had never happened before.
They had found a way to hurt her.
For some reason, the thought should have worried her, sent a shadow of fear into her chest, but what came was a flame of anger right from the pit of her stomach.
How dare they cut her Witch.
Her blue gaze traveled from the blade to her greyed, wizened right hand.
Did they know how much she had sacrificed?
“As someone said once, you shaved out beard and in doing so you broke your arm. But beards grow back quite swiftly, while bones take a long while to knit back together,” she said, falling back to her history lessons to try and reassert herself.
“That may be so,” Blackbeard laughed, “but there’s many of us. And we only have to get you once.”
“I suppose we’ll see how many storms it takes to make the mountain bow,” she replied, throwing the blade away with a flick of her healthy hand. “I always ask her not to kill, at least the first time. But if I see any of you on my trail once again, I might grow less kind.”
Blackbeard’s eyes darkened, and she enjoyed a victorious smile.
“Bring my regards to the Duke, gentlemen. I hope you help him see reason and leave my Principality as soon as possible.”
She turned on her heels and began to walk towards the forest.
“You don’t know who you are fighting against, you princely wench,” Blackbeard shouted after her, his voice full of violent mirth. “The Duke has one in his ranks that even your Witch can’t escape!”
Alba did not even look back at him. It was always like that. They liked to boast and to make her feel afraid. But she had the better weapon, and she’d be victorious in the end. “The best Witch Huntress of the Century! Lucilla Brugh-” the shadows knitted over his mouth and finally there was silence.
Alba reached the treeline, trying to shake off her worries like she’d shaken the cobwebs when she came out of the tree.
That meant nothing. The Duke might hire Saint George himself, he would never win against her Witch.
Speaking of which… where did she go?
Once she walked further into the protective cover of the pines, she looked up through the needles and the branches, only to find empty patches of sky.
“Witch?” She hissed. “Where are you? Witch?”
Where did she go? Always pulling these tricks on her.
She walked further inside the woods, her heart starting to pick up pace. She remembered the knife and its gilded edge and the droplets of ichor that had burned the grass.
Was she still bleeding? Was she hurt?
Was she in pain?
“Cordelia. Cordelia, come out!”
No reply, but she heard a faint sizzle to her right.
She followed it to find a patch of discolored grass and thin ribbons of white smoke slowly fading into the air. Up through the branches she saw the outline of someone curled over herself, nursing her arm into her lap.
“That me would be,” she replied in that smoky voice of hers, which not for the first time made Alba’s chest tighten in a weird way.
“I was-…” worried? Oh no, she couldn’t say that! “I was concerned.”
“… curious word that is.” She lifted her arm and gave it a lick, just like a cat. A few more droplets fell and burned right through the grass and needles. She took a step back. “Concerned,” she mocked.
Alba pursed her lips. She was not nervous. The heat on her cheeks was just because she was still shaken from spending far too time inside a hollow tree.
“Be it as it may,” the Princess sighed, sitting against a nearby tree, just to avoid more of the Witch’s ichor falling onto her. It burned through leaves like acid. What would do against her clothes?
Against her skin?
Her eyes looked at her consumed hand. Sometimes it was far too easy to forget that the entity she had made a pact with was something out of memory, out of the darkest corners of the Earth, a forgotten reminder of a howling and wild past. She tried to curl her right hand into a fist and she hissed at the ache that spread through her hand. She could barely feel her fingers anymore. The burnt marks had spread past the line of her wrist and would soon begin to spread onto her forearm.
She had a question stuck into her throat. She could try to spit it out.
She ought to.
Are you alright?
It would be just a simple question.
Just enough to show her that she cared – beyond her utility. Beyond keeping the Witch as an attack dog.
But she did not speak.
Alba Malcastria hugged herself, pulling her legs against her torso, and waited until her Witch finished licking her wounds, and no more drops of her corrosive ichor fell onto the ground.
Far from where the Princess and the Witch danced around the abyss in their conversation, a young woman opened one of her green eyes. She sat in a circle of ink, powdered bones and salt, sitting patiently.
She was surrounded by seven burning candles, each of them a different color, each of them marked by their Alchemical symbol. From lead all the way through copper, silver and gold.
Lucilla Brughiera passed a hand through her long auburn hair.
If she had been called back from her meditation, it meant…
The candle marked with a tiny circle with eight rays shooting out of it sparked in a sudden flame that made the shadows drunkenly dance through the entire room. It burst into a joyful flower and went off, leaving the other seven unchanged.
“Ah, a reaction at last!” She picked up the candle, passing her fingers over the remains of the gold salts she had spread at the bottom. “So it was gold, hm? I suppose it makes sense.”
Not the most practical of solutions, she supposed, but a far better choice than mercury.
And what mattered the most: they had an answer.
Now she knew what material to fashion her knives into.
They would gladly bite into the Witch’s flesh.
Author’s Notes: first short-story after Patina. Phew! I liked working on it, though I am still unsure if I should start publishing an entire novel with these characters or do something else. I’ll think about it in the next few days. If you are interested in this kind of storyline, I would greatly appreciate your insight.
At any rate, thanks for reading.