In the end, the meetings for the day did not go even that bad. Her Ministers just reiterated things she already knew: lack of manpower, old and rusty weapons, complaining farmer, and the pressure of the Austrian Empire surrounding them like a stormy sea biting into a tiny island.
What was far, far worse was the news about the Duke’s visit.
Alba lifted her lamp, brightening the dusty room deep in the Catacombs; she brought out of the shadows an exquisite bas-relief that depicted all of the Witches, all seven of them… plus the eighth.
She had to be ready. In her initial calculations, based on what she could make out from the information gathered by Andronikos and a few more trusted advisors, any threat from Austria would have materialized in the form of financial pressure, or diplomatic threats at the border. Or perhaps simple economic warfare: she’d have a hard time running her country (well, harder than at present) if all her factory workers left for better pay in Innsbruck or Villach.
But the Duke complicated things.
Shouldn’t he be in the Lombard-Venetian provinces fighting the Italian insurrections?
It did not make sense for him to come here.
And thus at the end of her day she had wormed her way underground, reaching once again the nethermost halls. Maybe she hoped to find some comfort here, alone with the dust of centuries and the dancing shadows of her lamp.
She glanced at the flickering tongue inside it.
Every time she came down here she was on a timer. The thought of her little flame running out or her lamp breaking was terrifying. It would mean meandering through the utter darkness, the only guidance the far-off rumble of the chthonic river as it threw itself down the rapids, into the endless void, and then out of the Catacombs.
She’d have to crawl on all fours in the utter darkness of the underground, praying not to slip or lose her way, across the river and then up towards the endless, labyrinthine staircases.
Alba always brought a spare with her.
And even then, all she could do was to hold her lamp like she would have done with her heart.
But for tonight, the time she could get alone here she would spend trying to find some comfort.
The news about the Duke had profoundly shaken her and she had spent the entirety of her day trying to push that worry at the edge of her mind, but now that she was alone here, and she could clearly hear the echoes of her breath in utter solitude, she could give real voice to her fears.
“I am afraid I am just not good enough,” she croaked, looking up at the too-tall, invisible ceiling, at the tall figures of the bas-relief that guarded the entrance to the final corridor and to the final mystery she had to solve. “How do I get her out of there? I haven’t the faintest clue.” She picked up the Brazen Book, the collection of Father’s notes that he had for some reason bound between bronze covers. Her distorted reflection watched her. She flipped it open and skimmed through the writings.
Dates, from the foundation of Eridania in the 6th Century to the last time the Witches were all seen together, just before the War of League of Cambrai. Names: like Yrima of the Ravens, the chief of the group and the one responsible for the blood Pact. And Lantanius Malcastria, the first of her family to honor that old alliance.
She had learned them all very well, to the point she could recite them at the drop of a hat. She had spent so many nights peering through the notes Father entrusted into her with shivering hands. She had to reassure Andronikos she’d keep a level head and would not go down the same slippery slope of insanity of her father.
But that was the point, wasn’t it?
“How do I take you out of there… in the name of all Saints, isn’t there anything else I can do?”
If only she could find a way – tonight, a stroke of genius! A blessing from the Heavens.
So that tomorrow she’d meet with the Duke and already have her secret weapon. Her assurance that no matter how many cannons and bayonets he squared against her kingdom, the power that had been entrusted onto her family through long centuries would once again come back to protect them.
She sighed, picked up her lamp and proceeded down the corridor, glancing at more depictions of the Witches and their actions. She saw all seven of them fall onto the Goth army right after the first Pact, driving them to a rout. Yrima with her lightings, Robura with her shield to protect the soldiers, Amarganta healing the wounded with her tears, and so on.
And on the other side of the corridor stood a lonesome figure: the eighth Witch. She couldn’t recognize her features very well: the stone had been chafed and scraped so that only the general outline remained.
But why put her apart from the others if she wasn’t supposed to be the most powerful of them all? The hidden, most-secret weapon that could turn the course of every war?
To never be used save for the most dire of times.
“This is the direst of times indeed,” she spoke to the indistinct carving. “The entire power of the Habsburg is about to crash upon us. Will you not hear our prayers? Will you not come out? For me?” She brushed the tips of her fingers against the stone.
No answer came.
Biting down on her lip, Alba looked down the corridor: surface twisted in a series of geometric lines and openings, revealing a final chamber, smooth as glass, and inside it what looked like a bush of entwined thorns, shaped like an egg. It was just about as high as she was tall, and it had resisted to any attempt at cracking it.
The pavement still bore the signs of the black powder she had used to try and blast through it, not to mention the hammer-heads and other such tools.
It had resisted any and all attempts.
And tomorrow, she’d have to face the Duke – without any reassurance. Without any guarantee.
“Heaven help us,” she whispered, turning away from the nethermost hall and the rest of the Catacombs.
Her lamp was growing dimmer.
And so was her hope.
Author’s Notes: I erroneously titled this ‘Patina’ rather than ‘Witchbound’ at first. Sorry if you got confused. Force of habit I suppose. Thank you for reading.