This is set in my Witchbound universe, in which a 19th Century princess awakens a lost Witch to make her fight for her country – no matter the price.
Insomnia was an old friend for Alba Malcastria.
It had started with the first sign of Father’s malaise. The sudden mood swings, the unnatural pallor in his skin, his sunken eyes growing black and feverish.
She used to be little more than a child the first time Father was caught by seizures: the tinkle of falling cutlery still resounded like an echo of horrors to her ears, an unpleasant sound to this very day.
She twisted and turned on her bed, sweating even if summer in Eridania was never that warm. She passed a hand through her blonde hair, as if trying to comb through them and her thoughts alike.
But no matter what she did, the weight of her worries – the Duke’s likely assault in a matter of weeks, their lack of provisions and defenses, her one trump card that refused to be useful – pressed on her chest to the point it cut her breath sharp.
It reminded her of a copy of The Nightmare by Fuseli Father had to sell some years before: as a child, the image of the laying woman with the horrible gremlin sitting on her chest terrified her.
“Hack,” she groaned, coming up massaging her breast. “This will not do.”
Alba pulled away her sheets and stood up, making her mattress creak. She took a few long breaths to try and calm herself down, but the air in her bedroom felt stuffy and cotton-like, getting stuck in her throat.
Stumbling to look for her slippers and, when she did not find them, refusing to waste more time for them, she walked on the freezing marble floor (why did she leave her warm bed again?) and tip-toed until she reached the glass doors and opened them wide, crashing into the fresh air of the Alpine night.
“Ah, good heavens,” she swore, breathing in. Air smelled damp, with a dash of salt from the last thunderstorm. She walked on the porcelain floor until she reached the parapet looking down from the high balcony of the Cittadella.
Eridania blinked and glowed, gold and red – many of its citizens were asleep already, but there were some who could still be busy at work. Maybe they were penning their last letters to their loved ones, knowing they’d have to leave the Country soon. Maybe those very letters had an Austrian recipient, informing them of the weakness of the Princess Regent, and that the Principality was ripe for the taking.
She shuddered in her night gown, pulling it up to her throat. She was hot and bothered until a few moments ago and now she shivered.
How many of those letters would just speak of her inability to be her Father’s heir? To stand up to thirteen hundred years of legacy?
Her only hope was in a relic of a time long-lost, one that did was reluctant to follow her orders and that would rather much prefer going back to sleep, leaving them all to oblivion.
Her eyes fell on her right arm, towards her wrist and then her hand, which she cradled close to her chest. She had yet to lose most of her sensibility, but her skin was already greyed out and her skin wrinkled, similar to papier-mâché.
And it was getting worse each day.
“Getting cold feet?” Asked a female voice to her left.
Alba started, turning to look at the source of the voice: there, sitting between the shadows like a spider, sat a female figure, her slender body half-hidden by the darkness and the other half by the light black drape she had covered herself with. The metal chains covering her arms and her neck glistened softly to the moonlight, as did her smile, darting out like a knife.
“W-Witch!” She panted. She was positive she had last left her in the Catacombs.
How could she-
But she couldn’t expect to free a Witch and not have her use at least a bit of her power, could she?
Power she had to dearly pay for to restore, she thought cradling her right hand against her chest.
“This being a new and modern expression I read in one of your books,” she explained with a click of her tongue. “I quite liked it. Is it not appropriate to the situation? Your Highness?” She asked, her smoky voice mocking her title.
“Are you taking my books? Without asking?” Right. Keep her on her toes. Do not allow her to dominate the conversation. Andronikos’ rhetoric lessons came to the fore of her mind, helping her dominate herself.
“Most of them are busy catching dust anyway,” she replied.
“That is beside the point, Witch! You should – must – ask first!”
“I understand. Your property shall not by your property be pilfered, hm?”
Alba frowned. This was another of her tricks.
“You speak with a devil’s tongue, Witch. You are my only and best weapon, and am I not taking good care of you? Giving you a place where to sleep, and three meals per day? A chance for your kind to repay your debt in tow?”
“I have seen you ponder that,” her emerald eyes darted towards her withered hand. “Hence why I asked. Doubts, Princess?”
“I was merely surprised by your choice of payment. Tradition has it the Witches of Eridania always asked for a payment in blood.”
She reached the parapet once again, leaning on it and she just focused on the dancing lights of the city, the powerful circle of walls that had never been breached, and the silver ribbon of the Aleph river, a shining girdle around the whole city. Beyond the farms and suburbs popped up like mushrooms after the rain, dotting the fields until the first slopes of the thin valley covering her tiny Principality.
“I do recognize some,” the Witch said, appearing right besides her. When did she move? She had not heard her.
Standing like that, a good head taller than her, with her flowing black hair that moved back and forth as a jellyfish in water, her emerald eyes peering into the night and her platinum lips curling in a weird smile, she might have looked more like an enchanted statue than a living woman. Admitted she counted as living. Alba still knew very little about Witches, her Father’s research (and her own) notwithstanding.
“Long have I slept,” the Witch murmured. She pursed her lips and with one fluid movement jumped on the parapet – which wasn’t thicker than Alba’s shoulder – sitting on it and letting her garb flow in the direction of the wind, her hair on the opposite one.
Alba gulped, taking a glance at the sheer cliff below them: the Cittadella stood a hundred meters above the closest street below. Even if she crashed upon the nearest roof, it would be at least fifty meters of straight fall. She gulped and hated it as the Witch laughed.
She had such a disgusting laughter: tiny drops of silver falling over leaves, or the tinkling echoes of a fast piano scale, taken on notes made out of ice. It send weird shivers down her spine and she did not like it. It was fey and unnatural.
Just like the heat tinging her ears.
“Are you worried about your weapon, Your Majesty? Rest assured: a fall would not break me.”
“Why don’t you want my blood, Witch?” She asked, once again bringing the conversation to a topic she actually cared about. The safety of her weapon mattered to her only as long as it would be useful to her in battle.
The Witch sighed. Or at least it sounded like she did so. No breath came out her lips.
“Your Father is not here with us anymore,” she stated, bringing her gaze up to the stars. “He died of the Wasting, I presume.”
“Wasting? You are still speaking in riddles.”
“It is the name I grew up with. It began to show itself around the Seventh Century, a couple hundred years after Yrima of the Ravens…” she held out her hand as if to receive something, slowly curling her palm close. “… created the Pact. Binding ourselves to a single family protected us, but there were unforeseen consequences.”
Alba blinked. She thought about the maladies that so perniciously attacked every ruling House of Europe, the loathed Habsburg more than seemingly any other. She had seen portraits of the Spanish line and those mangled faces would not be out of place in a nightmare.
But this was something different.
“Father was a pious and mighty man,” Alba began. Her ruined hand trembled against her chest. “He ruled with wisdom and yet with a firm hand. He was beloved and respected.”
“Things you are not.”
“Witch, I warn you-“
“I am just stating what I see, Your Highness. I do not have the gift to read minds. But I have functioning eyes and keen ears. You are still so young. All of you Children of Men are so… caught up in the moment. I can’t find a way to explain it better. You are like a dog chasing after its own tail.”
“I hope you did not come here just to tire my ears.”
“What else reason might I have? The nights are long and boring. You make for an excellent distraction, and the way you get all flustered is so endearing.”
“I don’t get flustered,” she retorted, her cheeks flaring an angry red, prickling in the cool air. “And answer my question! Why not the blood for payment? it has been so for centuries. Why this?” She held out her ruined hand. It hung from her wrist like a dead leaf before winter.
“I am different from the others,” she said at last, a whisper that made her look like a statue once again, but one carved in filigree. She pulled up her legs against her chest. “I was born eighth out of seven – out of turn, out of time. The last of a dying race. I tried to warn you before you forced the Pact on me: not in blood, but in bond. Now it is too late for regrets, Your Highness.”
“There is no regret here. Just curiosity, that’s all.”
“That’s all,” she mockingly repeated. “So be it.”
“I am coming back inside.” Alba pulled back from the parapet. “I grow tired of your games and the night is getting colder.”
“Do as you wish. Besides, it was nice to have you here, for while at least. Nights can get lonely. Now even more so.”
Alba hesitated. She turned to look at her, but the Witch gazed into the horizon, showing only the elegant profile of her alabaster face. Her hair kept moving to an unseen wind.
She had a vision of a lost girl, only a few years older than her, even though she knew she was unfathomably ancient, lost at sea after a storm. The wind had ceased, but she had awakened in the midst of her ship’s wreckage, and floated now on a piece of wood bereft of direction, following the caprice of the tide.
Now even more so.
She had lost her family as well, didn’t she?
And she was the one to take her out of her dreamless sleep into the horrible reality of present day.
Alba shook her head, came back inside and closed the glass doors. She must be sorely tired if she let such thoughts take root in her head.
She and this… abomination were nothing alike.
And they’d better stay on opposite sides of the room.
And yet, only when she had put herself between the sheets, and the cobwebs of sleep were starting to cover her eyes, she remembered that she did close the doors…
But she did not lock them.
Author’s Notes: I am seriously trying to find another story to tell, but these two really want to come out! I have another possible story to work on and I’ll see if I can create a short similar to this one with those characters, but it really looks like these two are here to stay. At any rate, thanks for reading.