The last light of the day hugged the western horizon, a distant blanket of amber sat in contrast to the impossibly deep blue of the impending night. The first stars already shone, pricks of light in the veil of the sky, and the tiny red orb of Averol hung amongst them.
An omen of unrest.
The thought struck Tallus as both oddly prophetic and entirely banal. Unrest was hardly a rare occurrence, nor was the appearance of the wandering star in the night sky. He knelt beside his horse, his hand on his sword, his eyes drinking in the darkness around him. They were stood at the edge of a large and unkempt pasture, far from the dim fires of the sparse farmhouses. The Everliving forest stood just before them, transformed from a distant green carpet to a mighty wall of growth, tall and impassable as the mountains to the very north of the kingdom. A gentle, living blue-green glow reached out from its depths, almost inviting them into its clutches.
His attention was drawn to three points of intense orange light part-way up one of the thick trees. Eyes, regarding them. Some creature he did not recognise. The grip on his sword tightened. It let out a shrill call into the cavernous night, a cry that either rebounded or was answered from elsewhere within the forest, he couldn’t be sure. He broke his gaze with it for a moment to check that his cargo hadn’t moved. They remained sat by their sleeping horses, fighting off sleep themselves. He quickly turned back only to see the eyes surging towards them, borne on a pair of hooked wings silhouetted against the forest glow. He was on his feet, sword in his hand, his body readying itself for combat. The beast turned away and rose into the night, revealing unnerving claws at the end of its wings.
“Son of a bitch.” He said under his breath. He had faced down more men than he cared to recall, yet a single beast of the Everliving forest had him shaking like a boy on his first battlefield. The forest was supposed to be teeming with such monsters, and worse. No man who had wandered beyond sight of its edge had ever returned. He didn’t envy the girl her future as he wondered how the elves could live in such a place, where even the birds could make a meal of a man.
Where are they?
They had arrived as the sun touched the western horizon, and had waited as it set. The instructions had been simple enough: reach the edge of the forest and the elves would find them. He hoped they would hold up their end of the bargain, before something else found them first. The thought was dwelling in his mind to turn back and wait for morning when he felt the slightest prick at the very edge of his consciousness. His years of mental discipline had left him no more immune to psychic influence than any common man, but he could still sense intrusion.
The ground beneath him shuddered and he stumbled. As he regained his footing he glanced around hastily to understand what was going on. The falling darkness worked against him, but he could make out a large band of earth around them being churned and torn apart as great roots grew like tendrils reaching from the forest. Where they leapt up above ground he could see a dim green glow, Aetheric magic, as they plunged back down into the ground. He watched as, within moments, they curved around and joined behind them, forming a great circle that thickened and then grew quickly towards the sky. Saplings sprouted before his eyes, thickening and reaching upwards, pushing through perhaps decades of normal growth in seconds. It was as if the forest itself had reached out and enclosed them, creating a makeshift fortress of living wood, a makeshift prison forbidding their escape.
As his eye was drawn upwards he glimpsed motion, at least a dozen figures swung and leapt between the newly formed branches as they entwined. They moved with a graceful agility that was evidently gained from a life amongst the trees, and a superior strength not uncommon amongst life-magi. They circled around them and took up positions, neither hiding nor making their presence obviously known. They each took a bow from their backs and nocked what he hoped were arrows.
He took his hand away from his blade as a second group dashed out across the ground to surround them. As they closed he saw long flowing hair, the exact shades of which were lost to the darkness, fair skin and pointed ears. They wore a light armour of bark as much grown as made, and long blades of sharp horn, thorn and bone. As they took up their positions around him he felt the imposing presence of psychic magic, hiding from his awareness. He could recognise Illupathy when subjected so heavily to it. Someone was toying with his senses, creating illusions in his mind. He would certainly be unable to tell what around him was real, but knowing he couldn’t trust what he saw lessened his disadvantage. In the back of his mind he was already weighing up his chances. Some or even all of the warriors around him were likely illusory, and his dragon-steel blade would slice through their weapons without much effort. But he was likely outnumbered, and even a single genuine archer above would spell doom. And that wasn’t counting the extent of the hold the psychic had on him.
It’s impossible. Don’t fight. Give in.
He had to hold in a laugh. The attempted suggestion bordered on pathetic, imparted with force over subtlety. Shifting his thoughts to divert the invading notion with relative ease.
“Let’s dispense with the theatrics, if it’s all the same to you.” He called out.
“You have the girl.” A female voice called back in the Elvish tongue. Whether it was the enchantment in his own mind or the psychic’s influence that bound meaning to the words he couldn’t say.
“I do.” He replied.
“Relinquish her as agreed.” The disembodied voice commanded. The elves around them took a step closer, the grip on their weapons tightening.
“I have a condition.” He called back. “A request.”
“Your conditions are irrelevant. Our agreement is with your king, you will not amend it.”
“Please, one of our group was wounded. She’s near death, only half a day’s ride from here. You’re the only healers with any chance of saving her…”
“Your companions are not our concern.” The voice replied, devoid of sympathy. “Nor is it our intent to practice magic within Artellathwaine.”
“I only need one of you. I’ll personally guarantee their safety.”
“Your word holds nothing. We take what is ours. Stand aside.”
The elves stepped closer and raised their blades. This was pointless, they were never going to help him. The best he could hope for was to get out of this alive. He reached for his blade but they were already upon him. A blade gouged through his leg and agony ripped through him. He collapsed to his knees and gasped at the cold air. He felt the warm blood run down his leg. He saw one elf lift the girl over his shoulder. She offered no resistance, nor was the boy alarmed. Their young minds were less of a match it seemed. The others surrounded him, weapons ready, preventing him from intervening. The elf that carried her launched into a run, powered by unnatural strength he covered the distance to the forest in a matter of seconds. Before Tallus had realised exactly what was happening the two of them had vanished into the trees. At once three of the remaining elves turned away from him. Two launched into their own incredible run, the third, a woman, vanished in a flash of green light. The rest collapsed into dark smoke and quickly faded from existence. A moment later the pain in his leg subsided and the wound too dissipated. He was almost impressed, he could have sworn it was real. The arboreal wall around them crumbled to a similar smoke. As he felt the psychic’s influence recede from his mind he wondered what, if anything, had been real.
The girl was gone, that much at least had happened, and the boy was only now rousing from whatever spell he had been put under. He began to panic, gasping and screaming as the ordeal of watching his sister be carried away caught up to him. He ran towards the forest as fast as his legs could bear him, but he didn’t get far before he collapsed from exhaustion and his screams reduced to tears and muted cries. Tallus walked up behind him and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck. As he lifted the small child and carried him he spoke sternly.
“Keep your tears to yourself, kid. We’ve got a long way to go yet.”
Witches could always find a home in darkness. That was what Zoyelle had always been told at least. She preferred the daylight hours, but with the days spent conjuring and lending magic to the smallfolk, she understood why the business of witching always ended up banished to the darkness. She clutched her knees to her chest as she sat by the crackle of the fire, set in a circle of stones in the heart of an otherwise deserted thicket of trees on an unassuming hillside. Granny Hark sat opposite her, aged features and creased skin given greater depth by the dance of shadows on her face. Around them the darkness lingered, its tendrils held at bay by the light of the fire. Somewhere in the shadows Yollen lurked, awaiting his master’s call. She also heard the sounds of restless wildlife, as awake as if it were day.
She looked up and caught Turnip clambering in the branches, his claws digging into the bark. His head twisted this way and that as he watched creatures, bats most likely, zipping about in the firelight.
She had been to this place on few occasions. One of the many meeting places dotted throughout the kingdom, it marked a position roughly equidistant from Granny Hark’s hovel on Gallow’s Reach and the homes of two other Elders. The last time they had all met in her presence was to decide her membership in the Sisterhood. Now, it seemed, they would do so again.
The small white dragon spat a gout of Aetheric magic through the air, striking a creature mid-flight. The small black shape fell, and Turnip leapt, beat his wings once, and caught it in his jaws. He landed awkwardly, digging his claws into another tree, and settled on a branch to eat his pirze.
A rustling caught her attention as from the shadows another witch slowly emerged. An old crone, almost bent double in her thick black cloak, her head hidden under a floppy hat, she shuffled towards them, a gnarled branch of a walking stick bearing most of her weight. As she hobbled, a creature dashed through the undergrowth ahead of her. Zoyelle spotted the flash of a bushy ginger tail as the cat bounded around the rim of the firelight and came to a stop at her feet. Two glowing eyes regarded her as she reached out and tickled him between his ears.
“Absolutely no good at all.” The witch muttered under breath as she moved to sit on a stone next to Hark. “Dragging us out here in the middle of the night!”
“Stop your moaning, you old bat.” Hark replied.
“Exactly! I’m old, need my rest, I do! Seb, get back over here!”
She screamed at the cat, who turned and bolted back towards her.
“Useless. Should never have bothered with him. Cats make such poor familiars, too easily distracted!”
“Evening, Elder Ganswick.” Zoyelle called over the fire. The witch raised a stone-grey eye to look at her.
“Oh hello, Agnis dear! How nice to see you after all these years!” She cooed. “You found a fella yet?”
Zoyelle shook her head.
“Oh dear, me dear. You should make a start on that! You’re not going to be a pretty young thing forever, you know. Before you know it you’ll be old and dusty!”
“Cybil, please!” Hark called out, as much with her mind as her mouth.
“Oh don’t you start, you prune! Just ‘cos you never had time for it don’t mean she’s the same.”
“Shouldn’t have time for it. Too damn busy, why else d’we meet out here at this ungodly hour? Makes me wonder where you found the time to have a family.”
“Only makes sense, gotta have someone to carry on the work when you’re dead an’ gone.”
“Speak for yourself.” A third voice called out from the nearby shade. Zoyelle hadn’t heard the other witch approach. Elder Cudders stalked towards them with an agility and grace that betrayed experience. Her appearance always struck Zoyelle, ever blessed with the youthful beauty and radiance possible only of a life-mage. Since their last meeting so long ago Zoyelle could swear that the woman who now sat across from her looked younger than she herself. It was especially disconcerting when she considered the fact that, despite her appearance, Elder Cudders had seen more years than all three of them combined.
“How are you fine ladies this night?” Cudders asked.
“Falling to bits.” Ganswick replied. Hark just let out a grunt.
“Well, the three of us are gathered.” Cudders continued.”Shall we begin proceedings? Wouldn’t want to keep you from your beds, after all.”
“Fall down a well, you immortal bint.” Hark snapped.
“Be more than obliged to provide the well.” Ganswick joked.
“Three elders are gathered.” Cudders ignored them. “As the fire burns, so we gather as Sisters. As those that came before, and those who come after. In the King’s name…”
“Oh, get on with it!” Ganswick bellowed.
“The words are important, Cybil!” Cudders scolded.
“We’ve all said ‘em a hundred times an’ heard ‘em a thousand times.”
Cudders sighed and adjusted her position.
“I, Elder Cudders, speak for the Sisterhood.”
“I, Elder Hark, speak for the Sisterhood.”
“I, Elder Ganswick, speak for the Sisterhood.”
“Let us begin. Elder Hark, as she who called us together, you have the first word.”
The three elders sat in the light of the fire, forming the single governing unit in the Sisterhood of Magic. There was no greater authority in Witchcraft, no matter what the transgression or issue, even if it involved a Noble Lord or the King himself, it could be settled here, between these three women.
“The subject at hand is that of a transgression between Sister Agnis and Lord Miteus Whetherhall, Noble Lord of Artellathwaine.”
“Never liked ‘em Whetherhalls.” Ganswick interrupted. “Met ‘is father once. Tried to have me burned at stake!”
“Is tall tales, is all that.” Hark snapped back. “I’ve known you my whole life, you’ve never stepped further south than Eckle’s Creek!”
“You callin’ me a liar?”
“I’m callin’ you a daft rag.”
“Ladies, please.” Cudders said. “If Sister Agnis would like to speak her side of this.”
Ganswick fought down a giggle and tried her best to appear adequately serious. Zoyelle took a long breath and recalled the encounter, as best as she could remember it. Five elderly eyes watched her as she spoke, transfixed by her words. She could feel their judgement, though they hid it well. Her recounting was met with silence from two of the three. Elder Ganswick punctuated the tale with gasps, chirps of outrage and the occasional whoop.
After she had finished, for several long minutes only the crackle of the fire could be heard.
“This is the truth as you know it, Sister?” Cudders asked.
“I sense no falsehood in her.” Hark replied.
“Course you don’t.” Ganswick added.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Hark snapped.
“Well she’s your witchling, might be you won’t see what you don’t want to.”
“Watch your words, Doryla, or I’ll tie ‘em in knots!”
“I’ll bury your bony arse before you got ‘alf a chance, an’ you know it!”
“Ladies, please!” Cudders barked. “Sister Agnis, do you swear it?”
“I do. That’s how it happened.”
“That Lord’s out o’ his place, you ask me.” Ganswick stated as she stroked her cat.
“Nobody did.” Hark replied. “But I be in agreement, it’s a clear transgression on his part.”
“No doubt he tore down that lovely cottage of yours. Ought to do same t’ him, and again. Twice in turn an’ all that.”
“Twice in turn is all well and good, Elder Ganswick, but these matters concern a Lord of the Realm.” Cudders cut her off. “We must be more measured, lest the King and Court turn against us.”
“Aye, and you can bet the Wizards would jump at a chance to put us in our place.” Hark added.
“Your challenge was valid and ignored. That much is clear and indisputable.” The ancient young witch continued. “His accusation should have been brought before the Sisterhood. His actions were no less than an attack on us.”
“Should teach ‘im what happens when you hassle a witch.” Ganswick growled. “No other way, there is.”
“However, the House of Wetherhall has in these last few days been dealt a blow by decree of the Crown, in direct response to a transgression against our kind.”
“You mean the damned Elves.” Hark interrupted.
“All mageblood are kin in some respects, Sister.”
“Only some.” Ganswick muttered.
“Nevertheless,” Cudders continued. “To seek recompense through any channel, official or otherwise.” She shot a glare at Ganswick. “Would be ill-timed. It could tip wounded pride into bitter anger.”
“Agreed.” Hark nodded.
“Therefore I believe it best if we appear the voice of reason in this. Sister Agnis, I am correct in believing you still practice a great deal of potioncraft?”
“I do, Elder Cudders.” Zoyelle replied. “It is my main craft, along with some enchantment and a little spellcraft.”
“And you gift or trade such potions to the smallfolk who come to your home?”
“And at least some of those must come from across the border, from Artellathwaine itself?”
“Most, in fact.”
Hark grunted and nodded, understanding Cudder’s point. “Can you say for certain that none took potions or enchantments across the border?”
“I can’t.” Zoyelle admitted.
“Aye.” Hark nodded again.
“Potions and enchantments are considered magic under law.” Cudders adjusted herself as she fixed Zoyelle with an empathetic look. “Knowingly supplying such to a realm where magic is outlawed could constitute a breach of the King’s Law.”
“No just law would punish such a thing!” Ganswick protested.
“Still, Lord Wetherhall may have an argument against you, Sister Agnis. His actions are, regardless, inexcusable, but the matter I fear cannot be laid to rest.”
“You can’t mean that, Sister.” Hark turned towards Cudders. “She’s been chased out of her home, surely that’s punishment enough!”
“I propose we reach out. Send a message to Lord Wetherhall, that his accusation has been heard and the Sisterhood do offer to settle this matter. An invitation, so that accuser and accused may stand before the Elders and arbitrate the challenge to his ruling.”
“He’d never listen. Not in a hundred ages.” Hark snorted.
“He’d probably insist the challenge be settled by Court.” Ganswick added.
“He can’t. The arbitrators of challenge must be chosen by the issuer.” Cudders said.
“Well, until such time as he accepted our offer,” Hark mused, “His judgement would be challenged, and as for his actions, those could be justified by the outcome of challenge. It wouldn’t be settled, but it would be out of the Sisterhood’s hands for the time being.”
“It would be out of our hands indefinitely. Would never go for it.” Ganswick said.
“So we are agreed?” Cudders asked. Hark nodded.
“Still think we should tear down his castle.” Ganswick muttered. The others shot her a glare and she relented. “Oh all right, fine.”
“Good. Any other matters needing our attention?”
“Dunno, Cudders. You have anything?” Ganswick asked with no hint of subtlety.
“I don’t know what you mean.” Cudders looked away.
“Sister Iggy!” Ganswick cooed. She turned to Hark. “You heard the latest about Iggy?”
“Don’t tell me: she turned her latest chap into a frog.” Hark replied dispassionately.
“Who told you?! Bet ‘twas Sister Jessa, wasn’t it? Such a natterer, that one. Used to dread goin’ to sleep, worried she might pop into yer dream and never leave.”
“Nobody told me nothin’, you bag o’ gas. Iggy’s always turning him and her into frogs.”
“People like her give Witchcraft a bad name.”
“Don’t know where she gets it.”
The two crones turned to Cudders.
“Don’t look at me.” She said without turning her head. “I never taught her animism. She picked that up from somewhere else. Took me near a week to unweave that spell of hers.”
“Hope the lad’s alright.” Hark sighed.
“Mostly. Still tries to catch flies with his tongue every now and then.”
“I really thought he’d be the one, you know.” Ganswick mused. “Figured she’d settle down, have kids. Not turn him into a frog.”
“You’re a daft rag, you are.” Hark chided. “Something wrong in the head, that Iggy. Best make the poor lad forget the whole thing.”
“Well that was always your problem!”
“Makin’ ‘em forget! You’d make ‘em forget the break-up, the relationship, you…”
“Best that way. No time for it. Nothing but trouble.”
“You ne’er gave it a chance, t’is your trouble.”
“Shut it! Anyway, I say we bring Sister Iggy before the gathering. Decide what’s to be done wi’ her.”
“Can’t argue wi’ that.”
“The matter is in hand.” Cudders glared at Ganswick. “I’ll deal with her. I’m her Elder, after all.”
“Too soft on ‘er, you are.” Hark said. “You bring her ‘ere, I’ll bend ‘er straight, no worry ‘bout that.”
“Well, if you two are in agreement I suppose it’s probably for the best. Anything else or shall we bring an end to these proceedings?”
“There is one.” Zoyelle spoke timidly, looking at Hark for any sign of affirmation or protest. “A Dark Mage plagues our lands.”
“Aye.” Hark continued. “A life-mage with an unfriendly habit of vampirism.”
“A Sister?” Cudders asked.
“Nay, almost certain ‘tis a man.”
“Ha!” Ganswick spat. “Let the Wizards deal with ‘im, then. They want to rule over all mageblood, let ‘em clean up the mess.”
“Pointy-hatted arses never get anythin’ done.” Hark said. “An’ whilst they sit and twiddle their thumbs he prays on the young’uns.”
“’s not right, that.” Ganswick said. “How can we help?”
“It’s in hand, I think. Agnis and myself are seeing to ‘im. She brewed up a batch o’ Witherfang which should poison the well o’ his power, an’ once I get my fingers into his mind I’ll make sure he don’t harm another soul.”
“Never been one who could vex you for long, eh?” Ganswick nudged Hark.
“Vampirism is a sinister thing.” Cudders added. “Especially when it is twisted to serve some mage’s purpose. Witherfang is the best course to take, find the beast and unbind him from his victims.”
“I intend to do just that.” Hark replied. Zoyelle remained silent, if her Elder wished to share the truth, that even after countless nights prying into the man’s mind she had made no progress, then she would say so now.
“You need ‘ny help just let us know, love.” Ganswick said. “Be more than happy to bury the sod, let him live the rest of his days with rock in ‘is throat.”
Hark grunted at the thought. “Well, the morning light grows near, if there is nothing other to speak of then I bid you ladies farewell. Come along, Agnis.”
Hark eased herself to her feet. Zoyelle got up and quelled the flames in the pit with her magic. As darkness settled in she heard the two other Elders move off through the trees. The stone golem stepped towards Hark and herself as the old woman conjured arcs of green energy between her fingers. She felt herself pulled into the old woman’s magic as ripples of distortion churned through her. Her feet lifted from the ground for an instant as a flash of green light consumed the forest around them.
They stood in the garden outside Hark’s cottage, atop Gallow’s Reach. The same darkness surrounded them, and a chill wind howled through the distant ruin of Gallowfell castle, although Zoyelle couldn’t be sure it was truly the wind that howled. The leaves that crowned the Wizard’s makeshift home beyond the gate, a small group of trees grown and weaved together into a small circular enclosure. Hark had already shuffled through her door and disappeared inside. She wandered after her, into the warmth of the still-burning fire.