Page 1 – Sarah Mclean
The grey clouds danced around the pale moon, the promise of a storm in their footsteps, though as yet it was not raining. As the night unfolded, Darkness stretched itself wearily, wishing that Light could have held on a bit longer, even if Winter was approaching. It was so irksome, having to travel around the country every twenty-four hours to spread the night, when you could be tucked up on a nice fluffy cloud with a hot water bottle. Still, Spring would be upon them before they knew it, and the work-load would lessen, if marginally. Darkness thought it must be wonderful to live somewhere with numerous long days, where Light had its work cut out, and Darkness could sleep until ten pddm.
“Did you hear that?”
Darkness turned to Light, who had been about to put its gleam away and close its eyes, lucky thing. But Light’s gleam was bright now, reflecting its avid concentration as it froze, listening intently. Darkness followed suit, and sure enough, the noise from down below floated up to them on the wind, growing louder and louder until it became virtually deafening. Darkness had no idea how it hadn’t heard the commotion before Light’s indication.
“What in the name of the black night is going on?” Darkness said, as the volume of the disturbance rose still further.
Light shook its head.
“Well old friend, if you will continue to billow in that way, how are we ever going to see what’s going on?”
Darkness scowled, but drew in its aura, leaving Light free to extend its gleam beyond the moon and the stars, to pervade the fluffy pillow of cloud, and shine down on to an Earth which should be closing its own eyes at this hour, but which was very much awake.
Page 2 – Dominic Spencer
Light’s rays intensified but the people down below did not notice that Darkness seemed to be late that day. They were just glad of the extra light so their prey would not be lost in the shadows. With their pitchforks and their torches, the mob was prepared to attack anything that got in its path. And their quarry? A young teenage girl, dressed all in white with long dark hair flowing behind her. Any other day, if somebody saw her running across these fields they would have presumed she was racing towards her lover. Today was a different day, and her eyes betrayed her fear. However, the men of the mob were more afraid of her. None of them would have dared approach the girl on her own and only had the courage with the crowd behind them.
She reached the edge of the forest and stopped. Although the sun had not set yet, she knew that Darkness was only a minute away. Nobody, not even her, would dare to enter the forest at night if they wanted to survive. She turned and the mob had caught up to her. They surrounded her, meaning that if she wanted to escape the only way out was through the woods. One way or another, the mob wanted her dead. A tiny voice in her head wanted her to attack, to destroy, to kill. But she did not want to any more, she had had enough. Closing her eyes, she prepared for someone to stop forward and to end it for her.
Nobody did, apart from one boy. About the same age as the girl, he had autumnal hair and was a tiny bit weedy. His eyes burned with conviction as he stood before the mob with his sword pointing at the leader’s head. Both the leader and the girl shouted, though with different reasons,
“Elsie I can’t let them kill you.”
“It has to end, Reuben. It has to.
“I will fight for you Elsie.”
“Please, I don’t want anyone getting hurt because of me. “
“I love you Elsie.”
The leader glared at Reuben, “Stand down son. You haven’t seen what she is really like.”
“I have,” he said turning to look at Elsie, “and I love her no matter what she is. I won’t let you do this.”
The leader stood forward and knocked him down to the floor. Reuben sprang up and charged at him, brandishing his sword. The leader grabbed his sword and they clashed. Although the fight looked ferocious and they got close to seriously wounding themselves, they were avoiding any cuts. In fact, no actual bruises formed. This fight was more of a training battle back in the village between two high level swordsmen. Reuben for a second paused and the leader took this as his chance. He rushed at Reuben and knocked him into the mob. The other men grabbed him, pulling Reuben into the crowd and they did not hold back in hurting him.
His cries for help reached out over the noise of the mob and Elsie heard them. Suddenly the little voice from inside took over. Elsie did not care if she lived or died, but for people to hurt a friend she cared about was another matter. The mob was so busy with Reuben they had not noticed that Elsie had frozen to the spot. When they realised that Elsie did not appear to move, a silence swept across the crowd. Their hands almost dropped the weapons, when Elsie looked up and glared at them with her piercing black eyes.
Page 3 – Ross Van Gogh
This chase was not going as they anticipated. He had warned them that this girl was not like the others, but a genuine witch. On a typical night the boy would have been tarred and feathered, the girl violated, then back to The Tipsy Troll for mead. They had not taken his warnings about the danger the girl posed seriously. Until now.
“On my command, kill the boy” came a calm voice from the mobs rear.
The mob parted and through the gap its true leader came.
He was no taller, no shorter than the others. No fatter or leaner. No more handsome or hideous. In every way he was a normal man in appearance. Only the long wooden croiser gripped in his right hand signified his office.
“Good evening Elsie, my name is Tómt Hjarta and as a duly appointed Witch Finder of Her Most Serene Highness, I have come to take you into custody. You can either be executed here or taken back to face trial.”
“And executed later!” retorted Elsie.
This was to be expected. They were all defiant in the beginning. Most of the accused brought before him however where either delusional lunatics or the falsely accused, victims of village politics. He had only fought two genuine witches before now, old and powers waning. Never a young one, just coming into her power and in many ways more dangerous. The ignorance of youth was a dangerous thing.
As a Witch Finder he was bound by the Five Laws of his calling. One, A Witch Finder must possess intimate knowledge of both magic and vital anatomy. Two, a Witch Finder must be proficient with the instruments of one’s trade. Three, a Witch Finder must divorce oneself from all human mercy and compassion. Four, a Witch Finder must do whatever is necessary to obtain the confession. Five, a Witch Finder must understand that the undertaking of this profession means the damnation of one’s own soul.
Quicker than lightning at a speed that astounded the mob Tómt Hjarta swept the croiser in front of him, seeming to cause an unnatural gust of wind, lifting Elsie up, first onto her feet, then knocking her flat on her back pinning her there.
From within his garments Tómt withdrew a long cruel blade and bent down over Elsie’s prone body. He was just doing his job he told himself. It was not his fault he enjoyed it so.
Tómt put the blade to Elsie’s cheek and cut a deep wound. Elsie’s sobs where tender music to him and inside he rejoiced. This was going easier than he had anticipated. Maybe this one’s reputation for power was not to be believed.
“Don’t cry so early little Elsie” he said, “You suffer so beautifully. But I am here for business, not pleasure.”
He straightened up. “We have all night to learn the things that make you scream. Come this time tomorrow you will be in hell and our time together will seem a memory of paradise. I almost envy you. Hell has so many wonders for its newcomers”
Chapter 4 – Matthias Widmer
Yes, this one was quite different from the wrinkly, old hags with whom he had previously had to deal. Leaning closer over the struggling girl, Tomt Hjarta inhaled the fragrance of her loose hair. His right hand had let go of the crosier and was now keeping a firm grip on the soft flesh of her neck; with the dagger in his left, he slit open and parted the bodice of her dress, laying bare a pair of tender, still undeveloped breasts. Unable to resist the temptation, he licked up a bit of the blood that ran down her cheek. The ecstasy was almost too exquisite. If she had been a few years younger, she would have been exactly his type; but even so, it was a pity that he could not fully enjoy her because of the crowd that was watching them. Perhaps they would leave the body to him once the witch’s soul had been sent to Hell – that is, of course, if there was enough of her body left after the execution.
Elsie nearly fainted at the sharp pain of the wound and the sensation of the man’s tongue sliding over her skin. This could not be happening, not after all she and Ruben had been through. No, she would not let it happen; she was tired of being weak, tired of running away. The constant fear and hardship she had suffered in the past few months manifested themselves in a piercing scream of desperation, a scream that somehow seemed to consist of more than mere sound. It was like the violence of an earthquake, like the crushing pressure of a tidal wave, like the heat of an all-consuming fire, penetrating the darkness of the night with an almost visible force. The people surrounding Elsie felt as if the very fabric of their souls was being rent asunder. The last thing Tomt Hjarta saw before he passed out was the girl’s tongue, which seemed to be glowing with an eerie red light.
No sooner had he regained consciousness than something hard hit him on the head. “WHERE’S THE WITCH?” shouted a harsh voice. Through the mist of tears that blurred his eyes, Tomt instinctively looked for his crosier to defend himself, but he gave it up straightaway, for not only was he unable to see, but he also found that he could not move his arms and legs. “Hoffmann, please, that wasn’t necessary,” he heard a second voice saying. Fighting against the pain and the drowsiness, he squinted and tried to discern what was in front of him. After a few seconds, he managed to make out the shape of what looked like a man in brown clothes facing him at eye level. A few more seconds, and he saw that it was indeed an old, emaciated man wearing a military uniform adorned with numerous medals. Even without these indicators of his rank, his silvery moustache would have given him a distinguished look. Standing on his right was a young officer dressed in the same attire but less highly decorated; he had white, spotless skin, blonde, meticulously parted hair, and deep-blue eyes behind thick-rimmed glasses. For some reason, his gaze was slightly averted. At first sight, Tomt had thought that the two men were unusually disproportionate in height, but then he realised that the older of them seemed so much shorter because he was sitting in a wheelchair, which also made him aware of his own situation, for he himself was currently tied to a chair in the middle of an empty, brightly illuminated room whose walls were covered with tiles of a light green shade; the floor looked exactly the same, except for the indefinable brownish stains that were scattered everywhere.
“Ah, you are finally awake,” the old man addressed him. “Excellent!” Despite his feeble appearance, his voice was firm and lively. “Please forgive my lieutenant; dear Hoffmann has a habit of getting a bit too enthusiastic when it comes to interrogating suspects.” A third man, who must have been standing behind Tomt, strutted to the front of the room and joined the other two. He was short and stocky, with stubble on his fleshy face and long, curly black hair that he carried in a ponytail. His uniform jacket was unbuttoned, the sleeves rolled up. Underneath, he was wearing a red shirt with a flowery pattern; the three open top buttons revealed a gold chain amidst an abundance of chest hair. It was difficult to tell whether his tan resulted from his frequent exposure to sunlight or from his failure to wash himself on a regular basis. Tomt had no doubt that this was the man who had hit him. “Sorry Commander,” he mumbled without sounding the least bit apologetic, “won’t happen again.”
“I should hope so,” said the old man without sounding the least bit upset. “Now, let’s not lose any more time. He turned back to Tomt: “Allow me to introduce myself: my name is“ – “Sir,” interrupted the blonde man, “before you proceed, I regard it as my duty to express my concerns about the potential danger entailed in revealing our identity at this stage. If our existence becomes known to the general public, the kingdom will in all probability be plunged into a civil war.” He spoke these words with perfect calmness; there was no urgency behind them. His voice was as regular and monotonous as a clockwork; Tomt was sure that he had never heard it before, and yet there was something strangely familiar about this young soldier. Why couldn’t he look him in the eyes?
“My dear Schiller,” said the old man, “your fears are pointless. It is only a matter of time until we retrieve the girl, and then there will be no more need for us to hide – on the contrary, the entire world shall know our name. We shall be able to defeat every military force on the planet, let alone a puny army of rebels. Soon we shall enjoy the fruits of our hard labours. Don’t you realise that all our dreams are about to be become reality? My dear boy, you should be rejoicing at this fortunate turn of events! But I digress.” He composed himself after this sudden fit of excitement. “Now, where was I? Ah yes, introductions!” Once again, he addressed Tomt: “My name is Grigorij Draganovic Kafka.”
Tomt Hijarta did not trust his ears. He had heard stories about Grigorij the Dragon, about his exploits during the Great War, about his unspeakable acts of atrocity. He was said to have been dead for decades, but legend had it that his soul still haunted the battlefields because the Devil himself was so appalled by his crimes that he refused to grant him a place in Hell. Mothers used to frighten their children by telling them that Kafka’s ghost would come and get them unless they behaved themselves. If this man was really who he claimed to be, then Tomt was in serious danger.
“Judging by the look on your face, my reputation seems to precede me. But my dear friend, I do hope you don’t buy into the common superstition that I am some sort of spectre which has returned from the dead. I can assure you that I am very much alive, although, admittedly, I did not emerge unscathed from the past events.” He pointed at his legs, which, as Tomt had not previously noticed, were wrapped up in a woollen blanket. “Now, you don’t need to tell us your name, seeing as we have already gathered all the relevant information about your person. Schiller!”
The blonde man adjusted his glasses and went through a folder of documents he was carrying under his arms. When he had found what he was looking for, he started reading it out with the same mechanical tone in his voice as before: “Thomas Hardy. Recruited at the age of one. Son of peasants who refused to pay their taxes. The Brotherhood of the Finders came to the conclusion that he had potential; he was entrusted into their care and brought up under the name of” – here he paused for a second – “Tomt Hjarta.” “Ah,” exclaimed Kafka, “so he is indeed the one you told me about? Oh, how delightful! Schiller, I think I’m beginning to see the reason why you were so reluctant to meet him. But my dear boy, it’s been such a long time; surely you will be able to let bygones be bygones?”
“I don’t understand,” said Tomt. By now, the pain had subsided a bit, and his thoughts became clearer, but nothing of what he had heard made any sense to him. “I was an orphan. They told me my parents were dead.” “Oh, they were dead all right,” chuckled Hoffmann, his grin displaying two rows of yellow teeth. “What my lieutenant is trying to say,” explained Kafka, “is that, technically speaking, you were an orphan when the Brotherhood adopted you. Her Most Serene Highness doesn’t take fiscal crimes lightly, you see.” He smiled. “Government policy; nothing personal, of course.”
Tomt Hjarta could not believe what he was being told. “You mean you murdered my parents?” “Oh, good Lord, no,” protested Kafka, “that wasn’t us. We merely recorded the incident.” “But why? How do you know all this?” “My dear friend, it is our job to know these things. But allow me to explain from the beginning.” Kafka reached into his jacket and produced and expensive-looking cigarette case with an engraved coat of arms: two dragons wound around the towers of a castle. A moment later, Tomt was convinced that he was hallucinating, for he could have sworn that Kafka had lit a cigarette simply by touching it with the tip of his finger. Obviously, his brain must have taken more damage than he had thought.
“Seeing as you are already familiar with the doctrines of the Brotherhood,” said Kafka and blew smoke out of his nostrils, “I don’t think I need to remind you of its origins. For centuries, the Finders have been engaged in hunting down and executing witches, and as far as the records go back, the authorities have always supported them in their endeavours. However, as a Witch Finder, you also can’t deny how prone you and your fellow brothers are to abuse the power that has so gratefully been bestowed upon you. In the aftermath of the Great War, these abuses became more frequent and outrageous than ever before, and it didn’t exactly help matters that most of the so-called “witches” killed around that time were, in fact, completely innocent. People started calling for a reformation; they perceived the Brotherhood as decadent and corrupt. Some even doubted if such beings as witches really existed.”
“However, at the same time, Her Most Serene Highness was looking for a way of consolidating her recently gained dominion, and she developed a brilliant idea: what if witches were enlisted into the Royal Forces instead of being executed? The possibilities were endless! Of course this plan did not allow for any restrictions of the Finders’ power, as they were the only ones capable of localising and apprehending witches. In spite of the Brotherhood’s disfavour with the public, its essential structure had to be maintained; but this was not enough: its ancient mysteries had to be made transparent in order to become fully usable for government purposes. How was this to be achieved? ”
“Now, on account of my humble services on the battlefield, I enjoyed a certain influence at court. It was I who first suggested to Her Most Serene Highness the concept of a covert military unit solely responsible for the surveillance of the Brotherhood’s activities and the silencing of those who interfered with their affairs. My proposition was accepted with great approval, and as a reward, I was put in charge of the newly found institution. They even let me choose a name and the colour of the uniforms. Thus, the Secret Human Intelligence Troop was born.” The cigarette stuck between his teeth, he turned his upper body around in the wheelchair and pointed at the yellow letters S–H–I–T stitched to the right shoulder of his uniform jacket.
“The only problem was that the Finders seemed to have done too thorough a job, for there were hardly any cases of genuine witchcraft in the years following the War, and the powers of the individuals in question were not worth mentioning. We began to suspect that, in consequence of being persecuted for such a long time, the race of witches had either been obliterated already or was on the very point of extinction. Moreover, the secret knowledge preserved by the Brotherhood appeared to have been neglected and forgotten; the Finder’s abilities, which had originally equaled those of witches, were deteriorating at an alarming rate. The results of our investigations suggested that they were no longer able to perform their task. I’m sure you will understand the predicament in which we found ourselves: a special elite force dedicated to the acquisition of magical lore, in an age when magic had all but vanished from the face of the earth. The S.H.I.T. seemed to have come too late.”
“Nevertheless, we continued in the pursuit of our goals, hoping that, sooner or later, the Brotherhood would recuperate its former strength and lead us to the last remaining witches. Let me tell you one thing, my dear friend: it wasn’t easy. The better part of our time was occupied with the concealment of the Finder’s excesses, which kept getting worse as the years went by. In addition, there were still those who thought that there was no place in our modern world for a religion based on human sacrifice, and there number was growing steadily. Have you never asked yourself why the government has been endorsing your shameful conduct up to this day? Or did you think that we weren’t watching your every move? In order to avoid a scandal, we even started catering to your extravagant desires. Who do you think paid for all the meat, the alcohol, the drugs, the costly robes you’re wearing, the redecoration of your temple? Not to mention the children we provided for your entertainment.”
Schiller, whose eyes had been compulsively fixed on the floor throughout Kafka’s speech, grew even paler upon hearing these words, and now Tomt Hjarta remembered where he had seen the young man before. But was it possible? The skin, yes the white skin: it was the most delicate thing he had ever touched. The hours they had spent together; the boy’s sudden disappearance. Could it really be him? “John,” he whispered. “Ah,” cheered Kafka, “so you do recognise your former novice after all! Yes, Lieutenant Schiller here originally aspired to a career as a Witch Finder himself, and we decided to help him make his dream come true. However, for some reason, your company doesn’t seem to have been to his liking, and after his departure from the temple, he was eager to join our ranks. Who were we to refuse him this wish? But I digress. As I was saying, we have enabled you to lead a life of indulgence and debauchery. Now the time has come for you to return the favour.”
“By the end of last year, we had nearly lost all hope, but then you put us on the track of that young girl, Esther, Emily?” – “Elsie,” interjected Schiller, reading from another document in his folder, “Elsie Wilde.” “Yes, Elsie Wilde. We had reasons to believe that the apprehension of this one witch would more than compensate for all our efforts in the past, so we began to observe you even more closely than before, determined to intervene as soon as you had got a hold of her. You see, we had to make absolutely sure that she wouldn’t be killed in the heat of the moment. Not that someone with such rudimentary powers as yours ever stood much of a chance against her in the first place, of course, especially since you were foolish enough to abandon your weapon. You do realise what a silly mistake that was, don’t you? Well, seeing as we had anticipated that you would be no match for the girl, we can’t really blame you for your failure. However, we are slightly confused about the precise nature and sequence of last night’s events, and we were hoping that you might help us to reconstruct them in their entirety. In particular, there is one question which has been puzzling us” – “WHERE’S THE WITCH?” Hoffmann had jumped forward and hit Tomt across the face. “Hoffmann, please, I was just going to ask him. Seriously, my dear boy, you do need to work on your temper.”
Tomt spat out a two teeth. “Even if I knew,” he said as articulately as he could with the blood streaming from his mouth, “why should I tell you? You think you can use witchcraft for your own political schemes? You are insane! Witches are a threat to mankind and must be annihilated; the powers of darkness are not to be trifled with! And how dare you defame the Holy Brotherhood of the Finders? We have been elected by God Almighty and are accountable to no other authority than His; we are His representatives on earth and the instrument of His Divine will; His wrath shall come upon you if you don’t release me this very instant!”
“I told ya, Commander,” exploded Hoffmann, “that damn Finder ain’t no better than them witches! Bloody lunatics, every single one of ‘em. Gimme five minutes, five minutes alone with ‘im, and I’m gonna make ‘im coordinate.” “The word is ‘cooperate,’” corrected Kafka. “Well, maybe a little encouragement isn’t entirely out of place. But this time, my dear Hoffmann, do try not to hit the head, will you? I can’t imagine that it would be very conducive to the recovery of his memory.” The next blow hit Tomt in the stomach; he vomited more blood. “Now, my dear friend, I would like you to do two things: first, you will tell me every single detail you know about the whereabouts of Miss Emma Williams” – “Elsie Wilde,” interrupted Schiller – “about the whereabouts of Miss Elsie Wilde; and second, you will mobilise your fellow brothers in an extensive search to capture the fugitive. I trust you know what will happen if you refuse?”
Tomt Hjarta burst out laughing: “You fool! I am a member of the Holy Brotherhood of the Witch Finders; by entering this profession, I willfully consented to the damnation of my own soul. Do you think you can threaten me? All earthly terrors appear insignificant compared to the agony that awaits me in Hell. Beat me as much as you like, I am not going to be one of your pawns!”
“Beat you? Oh, my dear friend, you seem to be under the mistaken impression that our interrogations are conducted by Lieutenant Hoffmann. In fact, it is Schiller here who specialises in the art of torture, and I am proud to tell you that his proficiency far exceeds that of the average Witch Finder. My dear Schiller, now that you are so happily reunited with your former master, aren’t you dying to have a little chat about the good old times?”
The young man did not answer the question, but for the first time, he faced Tomt directly. His blue eyes betrayed neither anger nor hatred; there was nothing that would have suggested the presence of a soul. It was like staring into a deep abyss. Tomt Hjarta’s blood froze in his veins. Never had he seen anything like it. The women he had killed, the children whose screams haunted him at night – they had shown him fear, loathing, and despair. Even the witches among them had not been devoid of some emotional reaction that ultimately qualified them as human beings. But this, this complete absence of emotion! It was worse than Hoffmann’s violent outbursts, worse than Kafka’s notorious cruelty, worse even than the horrors that Hell had in store for him. Tomt Hjarta knew that he had no choice but to cooperate.
“I will help you,” he said with audible resignation in his voice. “Excellent!” rejoiced Kafka and clapped his hands together. “But how am I supposed to catch the witch; I thought you said my powers aren’t strong enough?” “Oh, don’t worry, my dear friend,” came the answer, “we will help you with that.”
Page 4: Robin Thomson
Reuben awoke, and immediately regretted it.
For a while, he was deliriously unsure which of his senses were working, and which was which. To him, the world was just confused sensations of heat, and searing pain.
But gradually he grew aware of his surroundings: the sharp smell of wood-smoke came first; and then the crackle of a fire; and then its orange light flickering fully on shelves of pots and pans, blackened, battered, and in once case bullet-holed. He was in a kitchen: the fire took up nearly half the room, choking it with smoke that floated lazily up to a little hole in the thatched ceiling. He checked to see if all his limbs were present, and found that they were – although he didn’t think it could have hurt much more if they’d been gone.
An old women sat poking the fire: though she was facing away from him and wrapped about with a shawl, Reuben knew her age from some clue in her stance and her motions. He turned over to get a better look at her – fresh stabs of pain – opened his mouth, and managed to make the sound of a toad dying a slow and agonising death.
The women turned to him: she did look old, her hair greying and her face ploughed up with wrinkles – but then the peasants of their country aged quickly, and the women most of all. Though her expression held nothing but weariness and concern, Reuben couldn’t help but find her a little sinister, caught in that interplay of violent orange light and smoky darkness with a red-hot poker in her hand.
Only it wasn’t a poker, but a sword. A sword… and red light…
The sword clattered on the floor as the woman started forward to restrain Reuben’s frenzy of thrashing and groaning. Her grip was surprisingly strong, but she couldn’t stop his mouth:
‘Hush now, child, hush now!,’ said the old woman – but the years had squeezed out any motherly tenderness she’d ever had in her voice, which was as firm as her grip. ‘Easy now…’
Reuben fell back onto the rough straw bedding, more from exhaustion than obedience. ‘Elsie…’ he said quietly, with the inflection of a hopeless prayer. The woman stood over him for a couple of minutes more, then silently turned away, picked up the glowing sword – it wasn’t Reuben’s, but the stumpy bayonet of a soldier of Her Serene Highness, stained and twisted by years of peaceful use in the fireplace – and dropped it into a bucket of cold water.
No sooner had Reuben calmed down but another altercation began. Behind his head, in a part of the room he couldn’t see, he heard the sounds of a scuffle.
‘You should have told me he was awake!,’ shouted a breathless young man with a curious accent.
‘He was only awake just now,’ replied an older, more familiar voice. ‘I didn’t know before you did.’ By the sound of it, the old peasant was getting the better of the grapple without particularly trying.
‘There’s no time!,’ said the young man, sounding offended by his opponent’s excessive reasonableness. There he must have slipped his opponent’s grip, as he careened into Reuben’s field of view, bent double, limbs flying in various directions. Having managed to avoid falling head-first into the fireplace, he straightened up and caught his breath.
‘Ahem,’ he said. He was about Reuben’s age, but his absurd attempt to grow a beard made him look younger. He wore a linen shirt, a bright but fraying silk neckerchief, and – a very rare sight in the countryside – wire-framed glasses. Reuben had only seen these a couple of times in his life before; the flash of the fire on the lenses unnerved him.
‘Citizen Reuben Turner? I’m, ah, I’m Ernst Prokopovitch, and I need you to tell me about the ah, about the ah girl Elsie Wilde. Citizen Elsie Wilde,’ he corrected himself.
The old woman and the other man who had now entered the room – a peasant whose big, serious face looked like it had been carved out of red stone – shot Citizen Prokopovitch daggers with their eyes. But Reuben’s… anger, or fear or despair, or all of these things, had left him for now. He lay back, and looked up at the pots and pans.
‘Red light,’ he said quietly.
‘Leave him be,’ said the peasant, whose name Reuben felt he ought to have known, ‘Time’s the only thing that can help him now, whether you can spare it or not. Whether anyone can spare it or not. I’ve seen men like this before.’
‘She’s in grave danger!,’ said Prokopovitch.
‘So’s he,’ said the peasant, but Reuben had already started up.
‘Where is she?,’ he croaked.
‘…I was hoping you knew,’ said Prokopovitch.
‘All I remember is people running and shouting and a bright red light. …How did I get here?’
‘Citizen, ah, Citizen Snow and his wife here found you where the mob left you after they ran from the, ah, from the event and took you here. They’re, ah’ – he glanced at them as if seeking approval – ‘Friends of the people in this district. I’d come from the provincial headquarters to tell them there was a Witch-Finder on the way but I arrived, ah… I arrived, ah… well, too late. Apparently.’
That overpowering red light in his mind was beginning to fade, and Reuben could begin to make out the shapes of his memories. They were jumbled, out of order and perhaps – he hoped – mixed up with the fevered dreams of his unconsciousness. He remembered quiet old Alan Snow. Yes, that it was it, Alan. And his wife… Bridget? His father had known him from the war, but since neither of them would talk about it, and it was all they’d had in common, their friendship had been limited to nods. More memories came tumbling back, of his father and the hut that had been there home. He slumped back again.
“Citizen Snow” snorted. ‘Friend of the people I don’t know about. It was the people that did this to you, son.’ He nodded curtly at Reuben. ‘But I’m an enemy of the Finders, sure enough. We saw enough of their work in the war.’
‘But this is besides the point!,’ said Prokopovitch abruptly. ‘Until we know what’s become of the girl, nobody is safe!’ He looked anxiously at Reuben, and then at Alan. ‘Does he…?’
‘I know what she was,’ said Reuben, too resigned to be angry. ‘Everyone does now. Most of them never knew who she was, of course. But what are you?’ He managed to pull himself up on one arm – old Bridget Snow looked alarmed – and look Prokopovitch in the eyes.
He took off his glasses, and without fire flashing across them, Reuben could see that his eyes were wide with fear. He looked very, very young. ‘I’m the, ah, the section organiser of the revolutionary forces of the people,’ he said very quickly as though reading from a script. ‘I’m, ah… pleased to make your acquaintance, Citizen Turner.’
His expression darkened suddenly. ‘But we can’t stay here. I’m not the only one looking for her, that’s for sure. If you were my first lead, others will be after you.’
Page 5 – Sara Jakobsson
As if on cue, the ground under their feet shook violently. From a distance came the sound of multiple low-pitched screams. Bridget grasped Alan’s arm desperately. They shared a knowing, fearful gaze. Time seemed to stand still as they looked at one another amidst the clattering of blackened pots and pans and flowerpots crashing to the floor. Reuben saw his own fear mirrored in Ernst’s eyes. Almost as suddenly as it had started, the shaking and the screaming came to a stop.
“It’s the same as last time” Alan stated, shocked.
“What’s the same?” Reuben asked and was met with nothing but silence.
“What’s the same?” Reuben demanded. “What was that? What’s happening? Where’s Elsie?” He continued. All of sudden, his body was seized with a violent tremor as Elsie’s name seemed to whisper through his very bones and the core of his being. He felt as if he was with her and she resided in a part of his brain he had never been aware of before. He caught flickers of her face. Twisted in pain, covered in blood, a glowing red tongue… Then his mind went further back in time, seeing memories that weren’t his, only they seemed to involve him. A woman cradling him in her arms, crooning “My most precious treasure. My little baby. My son.” Then a skip in time. Mysterious men clad in black. “Spare him! We can use him later…” and a sudden flash of blue light.
Reuben came to and found himself sprawled on the floor. Alan grabbed his arms and hauled him gruffly off the floor.
“His first Revelation?” Alan asked Ernst, who nodded briskly in reply.
“What’s happening to me?” Reuben whispered. “Why did I see a woman calling me her son, when my mother is someone else?”
“Because they, ah, lied to you. They do unimaginable things… Kill people or worse.” Ernst replied.
“Who? Why do…” Reuben started but was interrupted by another violent quake.
“There’s no time. He’s remembering what he is. He’s in more danger than she is. We have to leave. Right now” Ernst said authoritatively. As Reuben glanced over at Ernst, he noticed a change had taken place. His posture was somehow straighter and more confident, his eyes, previously filled with childish fear, now burned with a glaring intensity that demanded everyone’s attention, and his lips were set tight with determination. It was strange to see this young man, who, a few moments earlier had looked as scared as Reuben himself, transform into a figure of immense authority. Stranger yet was the fact that even Alan Snow appeared to hold the very same view and looked to Ernst for further instruction.
“Where would we go?” Bridget enquired.
“To a safe house” Ernst replied.
“A safe house? I thought they were all destroyed. When… all of those… The killings. The boys parents, Protectors, just like him.” Alan said incredulously.
“Not all of them.” Ernst answered.
“Protectors?” Reuben asked.
“Your bond with that girl…” Alan began.
“There’s more to it. Your fates are intertwined. You were born for the sole purpose of protecting her. You’re… a Witch Protector. In ways more hunted than the witches themselves.”
“Now let’s go. It’s not safe here.” Ernst insisted and walked towards the door.
Chapter 7 – Maria Sledmere
A bright day; Winter Isle. In all these years, Elsie had forgotten the comfort of the cold. It was strange, eerie, yet lovingly familiar, the icy purity of this island: this mound of blanketed hillsides; frosted cliffs; beaches where the sea met the land in a line of ice – a permanent freezing reef, never touched by heat, never melting, always strong. Then in the centre, the impressive narcropolis of ornate Gothic gravestones which stood tall and formidable against the glittering backdrop of the pale ocean. Everything was white, utterly colourless in a haze of cloud softer than feathered pillows.There was no sun, so gleams of light radiated from all directions, flickering in mysterious, illogical patterns, catching the eye in a twisting kaleidoscope of spectral colour. Yet beyond the dazzle of the ice was the sublime: the sheer sense of whiteness, of frozen fresh air. All the turmoil that had been tossing about Elsie’s mind – all the panic of the past few days – seemed to melt away as she stood on the wooden planks of the dock, her bare feet sticking to the ice. Her mind gradually became as blank and pure as the landscape. With a sigh that sent swirls of hot air into the atmosphere, Elsie felt glad to be home.
But was it really home now? The island seemed even colder in its isolation: more picturesque, more perfect, more unreal. There were no dark figures cutting across the snow, laying flowers at graves, their bright jewels catching in the pale light. No thoughts floated in the air. As Elsie looked around her, she knew the island was probably deserted; history weighed heavily upon her. Everyone she had known from childhood, all her family, the witch-clan, were dead. Not even their remains rested in the infamous necropolis of Winter Isle, where all the kingdom’s royalty and council claimed their final slumbers in the forever-frozen soil. Elsie’s mother, her aunt, her little sister, the clan elders who had taught her to harness the art of enchantment – all were dead, all were burned up into ash by the Witch Finders. Or what was left of the Witch Finders. Elsie thought of the dust, dissolving into the arid earth of an alien land.
With disgust, she recalled that awful man, and traced the crescent-shaped scar he had cut across her cheek. Hjarta. She shivered when she recalled all his sickening thoughts that had flooded into her head, with his breath on her neck. Sometimes – more often than not – it was a curse to read minds. His was a Hell: a festering basement of sordid, lustful horrors. One glimpse into this shadowy realm had sent her reeling in mental pain. It was indeed a curse, to not be able to retreat into the safehouse of one’s own thoughts, to be bombarded with the streaming consciousnesses of others. Her mother had told her it was a rare gift, but like most of the things that had happened to Elsie, the ability to read thoughts seemed yet another proof that a curse lay about her; a shadow, cast at birth, enshrining her soul.
But she had escaped him, at least. No longer was she the pawn of some suffocating political struggle, floating on the tidal wave of so many furious people, in a foreign land where the light was always murky, always reluctant to arrive in the mornings, always filtered through thick mists. Elsie had fled. But in the heat of the moment, with Hjarta’s foul saliva trickling down her throat, she had lost control of her teleportation powers. She hadn’t intended to end up here. Back in Klau. Back in this insular world where she wasn’t sure if all of her powers would work anymore, where it was unlikely Reuben would be able to reach her, where so many sad memories strung at her heart.
Still, she had to make the best of her situation. Time had passed since her arrival, and already the world seemed drastically changed. It was dawn, and smears of chalky amber and gold were beginning to tint the soft cloudy sky. In the distance Elsie could make out a sun: the tiny ball of fire, circulating slowly, the sun of Summer Isle, rotating on its magnificent tower. Here, the sunless island was forever in debt for its borrowed light. The thought made her colder, and she breathed delicate flames onto her palms for heat. She stepped from the jetty onto the mainland, and began to trudge through the snow, her dark hair billowing wildly around her in the awakening breeze. It was less than an hour before Elsie came in sight of her destination; like the other three so-called ‘paw print isles’, Winter Isle was relatively small in size. She looked up and the crumbling columns and great granite walls of the Temple of Hreosan loomed towards her. Its presence was always too real: an uncanny relic from an ancient time. She felt an arousing sensation prickle in the thin layer of magical membrane that separated the heat of her blood and inner organs from the cool outer surface of her skin. She stood before the Temple and felt its mystical energy pressing down upon her, her eyes caught up in the intricate, knotted patterns and curious symbols carved upon its front. As the sun reached higher, chips of crystal in the granite sparkled and flashed in the air, bouncing off the gleaming snow.
Elsie could not help but feel the heavy presence of her ancestors – those that had sought shelter in this beautiful shrine during the Great Wars of the Shadow Years. She recalled the history lessons the clan-witches had bestowed upon her to occupy her time while her mother was in far-off, unknown lands, fighting for a cause that the young Elsie had been utterly ignorant of. The shrine was encased in ancient spells of protection to ward off evil; to conceal the scent of enchantment left inevitably by all magical beings – the scent lustily pursued by the Witch Finders, and the corrupt syndicates of distant lands, which sought to exploit witchcraft for their own political debaucheries.
In her childhood lessons of history, Elsie had shivered to hear of witches’ blood being harvested, stored in vials in dingy basements; to hear of their skin being stripped while they were still alive, and wicked scientists trying to peel away their glowing membranes, which were apparently a source of great magical power. There were mythical tales passed around the young witches, about membranes being made into cloaks that granted immortal protection, sold in distant lands for high prices. And then there was the hearts, the only valuable organ left after such tortures: the hearts were attached to electric wires, cursed to a mechanical future of fuelling their evil machines and computers. A witch’s heart, Elsie’s mother had once told her, never lost its energy; even in death, it still beat out its own rhythm in a frenzy.
Although she still felt a peculiar sense of foreboding, Elsie approached the Temple with her head held high. As she passed through the circle of protection that encompassed the Temple, she felt the strange aura of spells shimmer through her body and then as she entered the archway, she was swathed in a wave of warmth.
Inside, her bare feet stood firm on the marble floor and her eyes drank in the beautiful, if slightly dilapidated, interior: the painted ceilings, mosaics, statues, the smooth floor tiles peppered with soft-glowing lights. Yet something was lacking. Or rather, there was the prickling sense of the unfamiliar. Normally, when one entered the Temple, it felt like the whole building woke up around her, but now Elsie could tell the spirit of the place had been awake before she had quietly walked in. She shivered, despite the heat from the eternally-burning altar candles. There was a presence, something unnatural, something that did not usually belong here; her witch-senses tingled beneath her skin.
She made no sound as she walked barefoot across the great floor. Suddenly conscious of her own silence, she noticed the restless crackle of a fire burning strong in the ornate fireplace. So therewas someone here. As she looked around, shadows licked the walls, sinuous and elastic as the flames.
“Whose there?” Elsie asked, her voice echoing pure as a bell around the hall. Her heart thudded heavily against the walls of her chest. There was a brief murmuring of voices from an alcove, and the shuffling of feet. Yet it was not just the voices, it was the strings of thoughts which floated around her; thoughts she was unable to understand, thoughts which entangled with one another in endless dialogue. She gulped, anxious. She heard the swishing of a curtain being pulled back.
And there he was.
“Elsie?” It was, unmistakably, Reuben. His hair had grown longer, his clothes were ragged and worn, his face was flushed from the blaze of the fire. Elsie stared at him, startled. She could not move, could not open her mouth to speak.
“You’re alive! You’re alive!” Reuben was incredulous; he ran towards her, his boots clicking on the marble floor, and threw his arms around her stiff body. She felt his warm chest press against the her skin, beneath the fine linen of her dress. He smelled of woodsmoke, pine, whiskey. She breathed in heavily and felt something loosen within her. Beginning to shake, she buried her face in his neck and began to sob in convulsive shudders, her cold tears spilling against his hot skin. In her pain, she tried to enter his mind, tried to find out what he was thinking in order to shape her response. But she hit a wall. A mysterious fog, which had never been there before, sheltered Reuben’s thoughts. Elsie cried more in her confusion.
“Elsie…don’t cry, you’re safe here.” Eventually she pulled away, gave her head a shake.
“I’m fine, I just…seeing you, alive…I assumed they’d got you, the troops…” Her thin voice trailed off.
“I assumed they’d got you – you were in a bigger tangle than I was!” He looked at her face, and noticed her scar. He traced its smooth curve with the tip of his fingers.
“Did he do this to you, Hjarta?” She nodded, looked away.
“Bastard.” Elsie looked into Reuben’s eyes. They had become sullen, clouded, greyer than ever. Dark circles fell upon his face and plum-coloured bruises swelled around his cheekbones. She noticed many cuts and sword lacerations on his arm, through the ripped holes in his jumper. A lump rose in her throat.
“Why are you here, Reuben? This place is guarded by spirits, normal people can’t get in. I thought, only witches…”
“We had our ways,” he replied mysteriously.
“We…?” Elsie looked around her.
“I’m with the rebels,” he said with mischievous grin. Seizing her by the hand, he led her behind the curtain, into the alcove.
The small room was lit with candles that were wedged into tin cans and dripping wax all over the mosaic-tiled floor. Through a haze of sweet-smelling lavender-coloured smoke, Elsie could make out various strange shapes. The space was littered with blankets, pots, pans, knitwear, various weaponry, books with bent-back spines, half-empty bottles of gin, whiskey, medicine. A band of people were huddled together in a circle, passing round a pipe and talking in whispered undertones. When they noticed Elsie’s presence, they were instantly silent, but she could still hear the foreign utterings of their thoughts.
“This is Elsie,” Reuben announced.
“She found us!” One chuckled, in a language Elsie did not recognise.
“Some hope, some hope indeed. The child is real.”
“We have our witch,” Another chimed in, taking a long draw from the pipe and blowing a thick cloud of purple smoke through his nostrils.
“What are they saying?” Elsie gripped Reuben’s hand tighter. She felt extremely uneasy, trying not to become submerged under the bombardment of so much alien language.
“These people – these people…are the only hope the Kingdom of Her Most Serene Highness has against the rising tyranny of the Brotherhood,” Reuben said, his voice strong but with a lingering uncertainty. The group seemed to snigger a little at Reuben’s introduction. He was like a novice politician, trying to convince everyone of his seriousness. There was one person who didn’t seem to be listening: the only woman Elsie noticed among the shadowy group. She was staring back at Elsie through a tangle of black hair, and Elsie could hear her thoughts jump about anxiously, in a frenetic dialogue which she could not understand.
Eventually, a man came forward and spoke in a slightly shaky rendition of Elsie’s language:
“I’m Ernst, Ernst Prokopovitch, so glad to meet you,” he wavered with a certain reluctance, as if frightened of touching her, before shaking her hand vigorously.
“I’m Elsie,” she said, nervous. Something about his thoughts, sinuous threads of mysterious darkness, made her uneasy.
“We know.” The group smiled up at her, their teeth betraying a lifetime of living on a beaten road, smoking and drinking all manner of poisons to keep them going. Soon they had dived back into their hushed conversations.
Elsie could not take it any longer. She pulled Reuben aside.
“Who are these people Reuben?” She demanded, “and what are they doing in a sacred temple? Why are you in Klaus?” Reuben looked a little hurt – she seemed almost indignant. He cleared his throat before replying:
“They have been simmering, underground, since the Great War. They exist in factions in kingdoms all over, their purpose being, as I am told, to break up the Brotherhood of Witch Finders, and infiltrate what they call the “corruption” of Her Most Serene Highness’ security outlets.” She looked at him, eyebrows raised.
“Really though,” he added with a smile, “they’re a bunch of raving revolutionaries, desperate to see a highway of emancipation built into the prison island, the power of witches harnessed for the public good and the replacement of royal bureaucracy with a system combining magical governance with a sort of watered down democracy.”
“Right…” Elsie said.
“It doesn’t matter though, you can trust them. Well at least, you can trust a few of them. Come on, you must be famished, let me get you something to revive you…you look like you could spend a week on Thermos and still not get warm!” Elsie’s eyes flashed and she grabbed his arm, her nails digging into his skin.
“Stop! Tell me how you got here!” She hissed.
“Calm down, I’ll tell you once you’ve sat down, come on…” Reluctantly, she let him lead her back into the room and they sat down on piles of jumpers. Elsie refused Reuben’s offering of stale mint cake but gratefully began swallowing quantities of rum from a fur-covered hip flask he had handed her. The more she drank, the more the voices of the others drowned out in her head. She was thirsty for silence.
“When you disappeared,” Reuben began, “I was pulled into the crowd, beaten, but I fought all I could. I didn’t even know who I was fighting. Pummelling everything with my fists. Then there was this intense darkness, it just fell down upon everyone. It was like nothing I’d seen before. There was utter chaos, so much bloodshed, confusion. The shouts, I still can’t quite forget them… I managed to worm my way out of the field, got behind the hill where you’d vanished. It was there that they found me, and I don’t remember much else from then on, until I arrived in the forests. Either they fed me far too much brandy to ease the pain on the journey, or they put me under a curse. I suspect, given that none of them are…witches, the former. Well anyway, I woke up in the forest, apparently on the mainland of Klaus. Where I first met you, strangely enough…they explained some things to me, said we needed to seek a safe house. None of us knew the magical properties of the Klaus forest, and soon we were thrown into the ether and then back into reality, but this time on the bleak beach of an unknown island. We knew it was still Klaus though, because I could see the tip of the mainland lighthouse, over the ocean.”
“The forest sends you places, it doesn’t let you stay longer than a day. When time restarts at sunset, forest dwellers are transported somewhere else.” Elsie explained in a dreamlike voice. Reuben nodded.
“So it seemed. They didn’t teach us that in Metaphysics at school! Well anyway, we discovered the Merpeople, after living on this beach for a day – starving, because we couldn’t find any fish, or for that matter any damned animal – and they directed us towards this temple.
“Merpeople?” Elsie sat up, interested. Reuben noticed how glassily green her eyes were, and how her whole face glowed supernaturally. It frightened him a little but he loved her more, still.
“They came out of the sea. Males and females – at least as far as I could tell. Didn’t speak our language at first but the one with a staff, we discovered he could speak Ishm. The Snows speak Ishm,” he gestured towards the woman Elsie had noticed earlier, and the man beside her who shivered uncontrollably and drank from a hip flask.
“They always say don’t trust a mermaid, but we were so cold and hungry, what choice did we have? Besides, none of them tried to lure us into the ocean or anything. Some of us were a bit gutted they didn’t try and seduce us…” he flashed a cheeky grin, “but one of them did give me this,” he fumbled in his pockets and brought out a purse-like bubble of seaweed, with a glinting jewel inside, “for good luck.” Elsie seemed quite impressed at his inter-species communication, as she was staring at him, wide-eyed, mouth open, her hair hanging limply at her shoulders. He blushed a little.
“I was going to give it to you,” Reuben said, “you probably need it more than me.” She shook her head, shyly. She thought how silly he was: Reuben sitting here still alive and still talking to her, feeding her rum and with all these revolutionaries tainting the sanctuary of the Temple of Hreosan, spilling out stories…his words blurring in her ears. She was a death magnet. They were out to catch her, and yet still he was here. Still pouring words about mermaids into the air. Mesmerised, she focused on his mouth, and his nervously twitching hands. She was rather drunk. He held out the token for her to take.
“No, I have my magic. You keep it. I think I’m fucked regardless of luck,” she slurred. The pattern of the mosaic tiles was making her mind do somersaults, and the pressure of all the temple’s magical energy was making her dizzy. She took a final drought from the bottle, and then slumped suddenly forward, passed out on the floor.
At that moment, Ernst came over to them, and looked at the crumpled Elsie rather disdainfully.
“If you are able, Reuben, to come sit with us, we were going to start making plans. We know that in Klaus the seasons are safe and fixed, like time, but we have no way of knowing whether the darkness has lifted elsewhere. The longer we leave things…”
“Yes, I understand,” Reuben said abruptly. He pulled a blanket over Elsie and joined the circle. Alan Snow looked up at him warmly as Reuben sat down. It was not Alan that spoke: it was Ernst, who was still standing.
“Right folks,” he declared, in a language that united them all, “let’s talk revolution.”
Chapter 8 by Ailsa C. Williamson (Parchment)
A crow flies in a straight line.
That much is generally accepted. North to south or east to west or south-east to nor-north-west crows glide over the face of the land of Ish in single extensive arching journeys, simple yet full of purpose, whether that is hunting out food for fledglings or taking the migration of a lifetime. People have watched crows flying for centuries; pirates acknowledge their wisdom when navigating the seas, the Elder People discovered new lands via their paths, and even dragons regarded and do regard them as the forgers of new roads.
Yet over Winter Isle, upon that day there was a crow doing the exact opposite. There was a single crow, a single black smudge in the white expanse of the snow and clouds, a black scar not flying in a straight line but encircling. Round and around, arching and curving, in endless circles, casting darkness in the white. And in the centre of the circle the crow created was a building, the only building for miles. It was tall, partially crumbling, made of the heaviest grittiest granite and it was in the impressive yet oppressive form of a temple.
The crow called out – ar-rahhh – a long, resounding caw of attention. He bent a wing and dove in a narrower ring than before, but it was still round. Tail taut like the string on a bow he guided his body with expert skill, knowing his path miles before he flew it, judging the winds and the thermals hours before they came. He glided with strength and with beauty and painting pictures in the sky with his darkness, scarring the whiteness as he formed the circles, around and around, doing nothing but flying and waiting.
And from the north there came a call. It was very unlike his call. It was not rough, not full of guttural sounds from the base of the lungs, but rather airy, a sweet-sounding mellow tone which seemed more song than announcement, full of assonance and purity. It filled the sky, the whole expanse of white, the island, the world, and filled the ears of the crow. His black eyes blinked, they shone as his head twisted towards the north.
Yet still on and on in circles he flew. Around and round in circles.
An hour or so later he answered. By this time it was clear what was approaching. If one was watching the white sky, if a priestess or some rebel or a witch had been simply waiting below they would not have noticed the other creature flying towards the temple. Instead they would have not noticed anything peculiar about the blot of white on white and simply left it. They would have walked back inside to the warmth.
But the crow waited, because he knew. He knew in his eyes, in his mind and soul. He knew everything, that this creature coming was as white as snow outside but had a sorrow within her which was as black as coal. He tilted his tail and flew a little higher, just so that he might see her more clearly. Luckily his feathers kept him from feeling the frost, otherwise he might have frozen. His thick plumage and stores of fat kept his body temperature hot and plenty so. Crows were designed, after all, to fly everywhere, desert and frozen wasteland, thus the crow was fine.
The bird coming, however, was not, and as she darted straight for him the crow felt her desperation. She swerved, hectically, her wings pumping overtime and he flipped at the last moment, suddenly claws scraping the air. As the pure white dove somersaulted over his belly he reached up and grabbed her. Claws locked and wings frantically beating they began to spiral. They swung each other around, caught in the other’s motion. Like a mighty pendulum the force of gravity and blood and sense of timing moved they and took them plummeting straight towards the ground, or, more correctly, the white-washed roof of the temple.
The temple. Granite and stone and tiles and bricks that could easily snap a fragile body in two. A building, not only protected by mortar but by ancient spells as old as time itself. They twisted as a pair, wings billowing out behind them, claws and eyes locked, falling through the white of the world. As they gained within two metres a great light erupted from the eyes of the dove and they fell through brightness, right through the roof itself, right through the spells. They missed the mortar and the tiles altogether and popped again into existence onto the rafters of the great hall, where they tumbled, rolling and gathering dust amongst the beams of wood and oddly planked areas.
They were cast apart. The crow rolled somewhere off into the dirt and dark, the dove remaining the light. He was tossed to the side, she ended her own fall in a hop, and she lightly ran a few more paces, catching the momentum in her wings, to come to a full halt. Once there she paused for a while, looking at her feathers up and down, checking all was well. Then she hopped around, only to see that the dark bundle that had been the crow had grown and there was now what looked like a cloaked and hooded ten-year old boy. His skin was midnight-blue like the breast of a crow in the moonshine, his eyes were black like shadows. In his right hand he carried a staff of dark wood, the top carved to look like the end of a bone, his left he held out to balance himself as he scrambled over the thin beam that separated him from the dove.
‘You could have made that easier, Ray,’ he spat, rising to his bare feet.
The dove blinked once at him, she opened her mouth. There was a faint pop in the air, and one moment there was a dove, the next there was a young girl, a similar age to the boy, except her skin was truly the white of the snows in the world around them, her hair a silver-grey. Her eyes were like starlight and they caught the ones of coal coming towards her as he struggled his way across the beam.
‘How long were you waiting?’ the dove, the girl – Ray – asked, ignoring the boy’s statement.
The crow – the boy – sat huffily down next to her, his legs likewise swinging in the empty air. Below them there was possibly a thousand metres of endless free-fall air.
‘A good few hours. A few hours! And you said you would come at first dawn.’
‘I had to come from the mainland, Rend, you knew that,’ Ray said, looping a strand of hair behind her ear, ‘And there was an unexpected disturbance. Something about Witchfinders going havoc or something.’
‘Witchfinders,’ Rend scoffed, ‘Ridiculous they are. They never remember that witches can teleport.’
‘Yes, apparently,’ Ray sighed, and leaned over the rafter they sat on, down to the floor beneath them, where the camp of men who had moved in a couple of nights previous had made their mark. ‘Rebels and a witch.’
‘Trees,’ Rend said decisively, ‘Trees and Witchfinders. They cause havoc in the Balance.’
‘Which you would know a lot about,’ Ray smiled.
Rend poked her in the side. ‘Which both of us should know,’ he said.
Rend paused, became solemn. Then he turned to her. ‘So what exactly where you doing, Ray?’ he asked, ‘What was so important that you had to go to the Land of the Crystal River all of a sudden?’
Ray’s smile faded. She glanced down, at where the witch herself lay, fainted and pale, exhausted after too many days of running. Around a large and savage fire the rest of the company sat, a company of rebels, thieves, outcasts and vagabonds, all sitting down to talk revolution.
‘I went there for them,’ she said quietly, pointing at the group, ‘And for her, Elsabeth.’
‘Elsie,’ Rend corrected.
‘Elsabeth sounds better.’
‘Her name is Elsie.’
‘It should be Elsabeth.’
There was a pause, tension. Ray stared at Rend, the dove at the crow, the Light at the Darkness, there was silence. Silence as long as the world is old, utter silence between the two beings who had been born to guard and never act, two creatures of an ancient race who were the semi-mortal representations of the fragile harmony between Light and Darkness upon the land of Ish. The race of befrienders of dragons and riders of unicorns, those who knew something of the secret of the Shadow People, but never dared speak it. Those who were simply known in the universal tongue as Torch-bearers.
Ray broke it, quickly, suddenly.
‘I went because I felt I should follow the Witchfinder. You wanted to follow the Witch, I had no qualms about that, and I wanted to follow the rapist. So I did, and he was struck on the head and carried to an old building, half sunken in the ground. I went into the roof and watched him, now a captive ironically himself, being interviewed – come being told a very lengthy story – about some brothers in hoods by an old guy in a wheelchair and young pretty man with blonde hair.’ Ray looked bored, she yawned and leaned back on her hands.
‘And they had some rather inappropriate reference to excrement on their shirt fronts.’
Rend turned to her, eyes suddenly wide. So wide, in fact, that for the first time this evening Ray could see the whites of his eyes.
‘Excrement?’ he said, suddenly alarmed. There was fear, real fear in his voice. Oddly.
‘Yes … it’s not that shocking, Rend.’
Rend spluttered, he shook. The hood of his cloak fell back to reveal a shaggy mane of black hair. He beat the end of his staff on the beam beside him, and raised the other in the air in exasperation, utter horror.
‘Brotherhood, Ray, the brotherhood, not brothers in hoods. You silly girl,’ he let out a groan, then slapped himself several times until he was sane. ‘Excrement,’ he muttered again and again, ‘Excrement.’
‘Yes, or as they like to call it, shit,’ she said in a disgusted voice.
‘The Brotherhood is the Witchfinders, Ray, the guys of poop are the Secret Human Intelligence Troop … a secret organisation who track the Brotherhood.’ He looked at her but she seemed none the wiser. Simply, she blinked great eyes in innocence. ‘Seriously, Ray, you don’t know this?’
‘Did you just say the secreting humane intelligible poop?’ Ray asked.
Rend rolled his eyes. He sighed, and buried his face in his hand. Female members of the Balance almost always took a long time to catch on. He made a face, took a few moments to be irritated, but sobered quickly.
Slowly, so as not to raise alarm, he turned to her, raising his staff.
‘Do you mind?’ he asked.
Ray shrugged, and sat up, ‘Nope, if you want to make use of it.’
The crow smiled, and then leaned over to her head and knock three times on her skull with his staff, which was carved from the Tree of Death itself, which grew on the mysterious island of Mortmonde. He closed his eyes, muttered something dark and bloody and of magic so old it would make a baby scream itself to death. Meanwhile Ray looked bored and waited, gently, until he moved away, eyes still closed. There he sat for fifteen minutes of pure and utter silence as Ray watched and listened to the epic plans of the revolutionists below.
‘Gosh,’ Rend said suddenly, opening his eyes again. Ray’s eyes, silver in the day and grey in the night glanced up.
‘Gosh,’ Rend repeated, looking utterly gobsmacked. ‘I knew they were bastards, but hells, they want her that badly?’
‘To do what?’
‘To call upon the Darkness,’ he said, as if it was obvious. Her jaw dropped her peep-orbs popped wider than a normal human could. He raised his eyes to the heavens.
‘Come on, Ray, what else do you think the blonde was doing? Just looking at the Witchfinder? Emptying himself of emotion naturally? You cannot do that naturally, not even the oldest dragon can. The Abyss, the Void, that is a Darkness trick, the others don’t realise, the others of the excrement don’t even know, that right under their noses is a magic user, a summoner. Next stop for him, necromancy.’
Suddenly he breathed, gasping. Everything within him was shaking, shivering. Everything inside was on a knife-edge, full of pain and suffering, entirely despising himself for daring to watch the memory.
‘Necromancy.’ Ray looked bemused. ‘Necromancy, Rend? I thought that was impossible.’
‘Yes, it is supposed to be,’ Rend whispered, ‘It is. Or at least it should be. The Elder People made sure of it, the Council of Brightness and Shadow at the dawn of times came together and disbanded it, but this man, this Schiller, he is dangerously close, horribly close. Darkness …’ Rend grimaced, ‘Even I find his heart disgusting to look at.’ He began to mutter darkly, horridly darkly. The shadows around him began to dance, those in the corners of the loft swirled, the bone-shaped end of his staff began to glow, but with darkness. In the distant cloisters a spider curled up and wept.
‘Rend, the Witch!’
Rend stopped his murmurings and looked down as Ray did also, her glowing hair falling beyond her shoulders. The trails of her white summer dress fluttered in the air, upon an unannounced breeze. She had a bright smile upon her face, beaming with all the glories of the sun, and placed her hand over that of her destined lover, her fated partner-for-life, as they watched the young woman struggling to wake. A woman who looked much older than them but was really younger in years by at least two hundred.
‘I passed by the Keepers on my way here,’ Ray whispered.
‘Hmmm?’ Rend said, looking over, now suddenly calm and looking the handsomest he had in a long time. Inside Ray rejoiced and imagined sexually vanquishing him. ‘Sorry?’
‘I said I passed by the Keepers,’ Ray said softly. ‘The ones who guard Serpentua? Those of the Rivers, the Lord and Lady of the Balance, she of the Light, he of the Darkness, who embrace the Utopia in the Border Mountains and were once worshipped by all. Those of the first of our kind, the gods of this land-’
‘Who were thought of as the most beautiful and the most holy until Ish discovered the Thermos.’
‘… Thermos,’ Ray repeated, spitting it like it was highly poisonous, ‘Imagine inventing an entire culture based on central heating.’
‘They are humans, Ray, dear,’ Rend said, ‘They do strange things. Ours is not to judge on their mechanical devices, ours is to guide in the way of Balance, and this Schiller is dangerously close to upsetting it.’
Ray blinked at her partner, she blushed. Snuggling into his side she hoped that if she flirted enough tonight perhaps there was the chance of sex. Both of them had been starved for days.
‘Well then what do we do?’ she asked, ‘How do we defend the world against a Darkling? Against a possible necromancer. Although it is impossible,’ she added, hastily.
Rend placed his arm around her, and smiled. ‘Why, we support that which is the greatest adversary to it,’ he said, ‘We support with our love, with our powers combined, with our wisdom.’ He stretched a finger and pointed as the young witch stood and began to stagger over to a man, a dashing young man who stood and ran over to her, only to sweep her off her feet and send her into a fit of giggling.
‘We support the rebels,’ Rend whispered, ‘We support the witch. As long as the Schiller-man, the Darkling, uses the darkest of the darkness against us, we give her all the support we can, because that is our task. That is our destiny. We keep the Balance, and fight fire with fire. Our fire, through the Witch. We are one, my dear. We are the Torch-bearers.’
He pressed his lips to hers. ‘We are the Balance, we are the beauty. We are the soul of the earth.’
‘We are truth.’
Chapter 9 – Nina Lindmark Lie
Elsie stepped out of the temple and into a world of white. It was so bright outside that she had shut her eyes for a long time until they got used to the blinding glare. She blinked and looked out over the landscape outside the temple, so much had changed and yet it was still the same. A paradox, she mused. Elsie was torn by a thousand conflicting emotions. On one hand she was happy to be here and see the places she had not seen since she was a child, on the other it made her think of what she had lost – and that knowledge stung like a knife. It felt wrong to sit in the temple, discussion strange and fantastical – and mostly impossible in her opinion – schemes for revolutions and attacks. But, she had to admit, it felt like a haven, safe, warm and Reuben was there. She sighed and walked out into the snow. During the night new snow had fallen, and the moisture in the air had frozen on any available surface making everything glitter and look like ice. She wandered into a grove, where the branches stretching out over her head like a roof of glass, and enjoyed the quiet. She had only been with the rebels a couple of days, regaining strength and listening to their plans. As much as she felt for their cause, she did not see how a handful of people could do much good.
A noise behind her made her turn and she saw Rueben and Ernst Prokopovitch come out from the Temple with buckets, they too seemed temporarily blinded by the sudden brightness outside, compared to the constant dusk inside the temple. They were laughing together about some joke Elsie couldn’t hear, heading down the hill towards the spring to fetch water. A sudden vision appeared to Elsie – she saw Rueben as a younger boy, together with other boys playing in the snow outside their school. It had been a winter many, many moons ago when the snow had fallen almost as thick as this. It did not normally snow there and the children had loved it, but it made Elsie’s youngest aunt cry from/of homesickness. Elsie remembered that part vividly, because only a few weeks later she died and Elsie never knew what had happened to her. She suppressed those memories now, talking a deep breath and feeling how the chilly air rushed down her lungs, reviving her.
Ready to head back inside again she saw a sudden movement on the ground. Moving closer she saw something that made her gasp. A beautiful, white dove, almost invisible against the snow, lay shivering in the snow; it’s wings flapping weakly. ‘You poor thing,’ murmured Elsie and bent down. How this bird had got all the way here, at this time of year, was a strange thing indeed. Elsie loved animals, they were living beings who didn’t enforce their thoughts and feelings on her – if she wanted to she could explore them by choice. Of course you could not get much information out of an ant or bird other than swift emotions and impressions, but they were usually more refreshing than human thoughts. There was something strange about this bird however, something solid about its fluttering thoughts and try as she might Elsie could not feel the birds emotions at all. Against her better judgment – not that she would have been able to stop herself had she been aware of what was happening – she stretched out her arms and picked up the dove and held it carefully in both hands.
One heartbeat passed and then Elsie’s mind was locked and transported somewhere else entirely. With her feet still standing in the cold snow, her mind was now soaring through time: a jumbled mess of images, spirals, light and colours swept past as if in a hurricane. An eternity later, though probably only a mere second, a mind greater than her own held her tight and guided her to calmer waters. First a single image: blackness. A cave perhaps? Somewhere secluded, dark shapes moved near and she wanted to escape from them. In the dark a flame appeared and more images flashed before her – death, corpses moving, dark spells, blood, fires, terror. These images had nothing to do with the coming revolution she was sure – this was something far more sinister. The corpse of a young child stood before her now, arms moving about and a silent scream echoed noiselessly around and Elsie cried out. There was nothing substantial in what she saw, only impressions, she was safe, she knew she was. They were only symbols: sadness and despair. Finally, this greater mind brought her upwards, out of the dark cave, but more horrors awaited above. The face of a man hung in the air in front of her, a face without emotions, fair hair and complexion like snow. Those features scared her more than the cave – she felt a magical force all around her, stronger and deeper than time itself. Within it she felt infinitely wise and powerful. The bird sang in her mind:
The balance, Elsabeth, the balance, we must keep it. Around and around the words went, becoming a melody. Read the Scriptures, Elsie, read them. Keep the balance, destroy the darkness. Help me Elsie, help me. The Balance…
The bird sang in her mind as a view of the sea appeared before her, endless blue waves. Riding high on the waves came a ship, broad oak planks decked its hull, sails were full of a strong northern wind. Elsie seemed to rock back and forth with it as it sailed through water and ice. A woman stood on deck, a beautiful and worn face, serious with an anger glowing deep within her eyes.
Like snapping a twig, the connection between Elsie and the Alien mind broke. She swayed, still feeling the roll of the sea and sank to her knees. As soon as her head stopped spinning she looked up and searched for the dove. She found it sitting on a branch above, a crow next to it, both watching her with dark eyes, heads tilted curiously. Elsie felt like she should speak, say something, but her mouth was dry. She had never experienced someone occupying her mind so completely before, she did not even know how long she had been gone.
Everything looked the same but she felt as if she had aged ten years. The sorrows and darkness she had seen were etched on her soul and all she wanted now was to find Reuben and confide in him, like she had always done before. Of course, the things they shared now were a far cry/ removed from silly games and secrets they shared in school.
‘HIDE!’ The terrified voice of Ernst snapped her out of her reverie and she rushed back towards the temple. ‘Hide!’ Came his voice again. Elsie saw him running up the hill, Reuben at his heals, the sea stretching out behind them. More people hurried out of the temple looking frightned.
‘We’ve been found!’ called Ernest, his voice now hoarse. ‘A ship! A ship in the bay!’
‘I do hope you know what you’re doing Ray,’ said the crow, as the witch ran away. ‘Sending her to read the scrolls, and with those people…’
‘Of course I do,’ said Ray. ‘She needs that information if she is going up against that man, especially if he is so close to necromancy as is believed.’ She glanced at Rend who still looked worried.
‘You do realise that those scriptures have been hidden for hundreds of years?’
‘Yes, ‘ sighed Ray, ‘of course I do.’
‘And you do realise that when, and IF, she finds them, reads them –she will be more powerful than him – she might become a new threat.’
‘Potentially,’ said Ray calmly, looking at the little huddle of people in front of the temple.
‘What if SHE uses the power herself?’ Rend pressed on, Ray sighed again.
‘We do what we always do,’ she said indifferently ,’we keep the balance.’
Chapter 10 – Emily Grenfell
Far away from the Winter Isle a great eagle flew in a steady north-westerly direction.
Buoyed up by the thermals over the tropic Summer Isle it glided with ease over the
glittering blue-green sea below. His name was Mana-Yood-Sushai, and he had been long
asleep. So long, in fact, that his wings had not yet reached their full diametric potential, but
as yet were resolutely stiff at the joints and bent inconveniently backwards. Despite this he
would have still made an imposing blot upon the sky, but for some cunning camouflage
that he himself had implemented upon his own creation. From below his under-feathers
were of the fairest cobalt blue, that blended almost seamlessly with the sky above, while
his top-feathers, visible from above, were a myriad of greens and blues that glittered and
flashed minutely like the sea far below.
His coming would once have been heralded as a sign of great change, but change was
already afoot. For the first time he had been awoken by it, as opposed to the earth being
awoken from its long repetition by his arrival. This little facet of his many-faceted creation
now demanded his attention, and he was on his way to the place where it had all begun.
Twisting true West he flew straight until he reached the mouth of the crystal river, the noisy
beginning of the place where un-corrupted water had first enabled life. Turning true North
he faced his creation. Ahead lay the jagged mountains where the earth had been rent but
as he flew closer a whim made him follow another path. A tributary joined the main river,
having carved its path through the millennia of his absence. Curiously he followed its
bubbling track, gliding over clear pools and eventually a series of beautiful waterfalls
tumbling over the tooth-like rocks.
Presently something out of the ordinary brought him up short. A castle not of his design
nestled bleak and abandoned in the hills. Signs of outward corruption perhaps? Those
trying to escape, or those trying to get back in? Who could tell. The land below stretched
just as he had left it. No new house had been built, no new path had been trodden. He
alighted atop an abandoned battlement and gazed at its perfect beauty.
While happily contemplating his own genius he heard a faint rustle and cocked an eye in
the direction from whence it came. Maresy, the great red guardian, had emerged from his
labyrinth of rock and slithered gracefully towards him.
“What news Mana? It is strange to see you on this face of our globe.”
“I have been summoned by Naganis and Arkinam and Estevan and Mildred.”
“Ah the gods of Earth and Justice… they have taken issue?”
“With the lie of the land.”
“Well, my noble Mana, you can rest assured that this, your first and perfect creation,
remains uncorrupted. Those below live as you commanded.”
“And this fortress?”
“It was built, and the building of it was the final act of the builder.”
“I have been long asleep. From whence did this builder come? He was nothing of my
instruction, he clearly had no talent for design and creation.”
“None at all, only for destruction. He came from without and meant to rape your land. I was
happy to convey him to the nether-world myself.”
“Very good. Where are his descendants?”
“Fly straight along the spine of this world and you will find another castle. Any more than
that I do not know, for my duties here are inexhaustible and I relentlessly guard your
“Thank you Maresy.”
With that, the great eagle took once more to the wing, gliding downwards at first, but
caught by a thermal from within the crater he soon soared high above and disappeared
against the blue sky. Maresy smiled his sly smile and slithered into the ugly fortress, the
desecration of which was his favourite employment.
Mana-Yood-Sushai continued West for an indeterminate time, time being of his own
creation he could weald it with little negotiation. As darkness roamed across the land his
feathers deepened into their midnight hue, and his eyes became little more than glinting
stars in the blackness. Before long – long being a time measured in comparison with the
years he had been asleep – a bulk appeared silhouetted against the sky with lights burning
at intervals through the countless windows.
From that distance he recognized the superior design of the building, with its symmetry
and grace, that far outstretched that of the fort near his beloved land. This cheered him,
perhaps these people were not completely without beauty. The stone from which it was
built was of smooth, black, obsidian. It reflected the stars on its flat surfaces that rose to
great sharp pinnacles of rock, and he dare not land upon the walls for fear of losing a foot.
The effect was quite mesmerizing in the moonlight but, he imagined, more than a little
oppressive during the day. He thought of the day he had just flown across and suddenly
the fort loomed menacing and indifferent.
This castle was a temple to the night.
As he circled, gaining height, searching for his goal, he craned his neck downwards. The
flat of the land lay fathoms below, overseen by this monstrous appendage to the
mountains he himself had designed.
* * * * *
High in her throne room Her Most Serene Highness was busying herself with the daily
running of her empire. Things needed to be attended to, things of great importance. The
dressing of her daughter was top-most on her list, and before her lay a satisfying array of
gowns. Three attendants stood by her side, one, her most trusted advisor, the second, her
seamstress and third, her cook.
“We think pink, don’t we Wooley?” She said, turning to her advisor.
“I think not, ma’am, I thought we had agreed that pink was a very Wednesday shade, and
not for Saturdays at all.”
“Hmmm, quite right. Saturday is a dark day, before the morning of Sunday.”
“Yes ma’am, all the poets agree.”
“And we must dress daughter as the poets say.”
“Quite right ma’am.”
“Then there are no dresses here for a Saturday. Why aren’t there any dresses here for a
Saturday?” She snapped.
“I – i’m sorry your Most Serene Highness, no one specified…”
“Her Most Serene Highness is not your Most Serene Highness so that she can spend her
days specifying.” Announced Wooley.
“Yes, of course.”
“Anyway, we don’t need to specify as the poets already have.” Mused the highness of
serenity. “Throw her out.”
“Yes Ma’am.” Wooley conceded and grasping the seamstress by the upper arm, marched
her from the hall. After the doors had swung shut behind him he released her. “Go and
make a navy gown with silver embroidery, make it within the hour. When I call you next be
sure and wear a beard.” With that he turned abruptly on his heel and re-entered the throne
Next on the agenda for the arrangement of tomorrow were the meals. Her Most Serene
Highness’s cook stood quietly while the Height of Serenity considered her impending
tastes. The cook struck an extraordinary figure, wearing the traditional white buttoned coat
of a chef, he also wore a woolen ginger beard that clashed horribly with his black hair and
an odd red hat with a tassel, on his back were strapped pink glittering net wings and from
underneath his coat there emerged what appeared to be a pair of black stockings stuffed
with padding, evidently pretending at being a tail.
“I want Swan for dinner,” Began her Serenity, “And salmon for breakfast, but be sure and
get it right – your brother was stupid enough to think I liked it cooked. Unless you want to
follow him, get it right.”
“He was an odd man from Faunal where the strange creatures live, just like you really but
he didn’t have a hat.”
“My father gave it to me.”
There was a slight pause before the chef said, “Because i’m the oldest.”
“Not because you’re a better cook?”
“No. But I am.”
“Good. You may leave.”
He did so, passing the advisor on the way. Maids scattered bearing the discarded gowns
“Picture of Serenity, there are a very few issues I might trouble you for advice upon.”
“Are they for tomorrow?”
“Yes. The first regards Fengsel. Pirates have raided from the Isles of Abuis and freed a
whole slew of dangerous men. They were your prisoners and now they are not.”
“BURN THEM!” Her Most Serene Highness shrieked.
“Well, yes ma’am, but i’m afraid whenever we have tried that approach, they burn us. They
have dragons your Serenity.” She looked at Wooley from beneath her thunderstruck
eyebrows and he continued. “I believe that we must use less fire-orientated methods. You
see, the prisoners cannot escape if there are no prisoners.”
“But there are prisoners.”
“Yes ma’am, but, if you don’t mind me saying, you were more than generous in allowing
them an entire peninsula. Might I suggest that we reclaim it.”
“But where would the prisoners go?”
“That’s for your most Serene of Highnesses to decide.”
“BURN THEM!” She shouted gleefully leaping to her feet and clapping her hands.
“Yes Height of Serene-ness, I will do as you command.”
Perched, almost invisible on the window ledge, Mana-Yood-Sushai ruffled his feathers in
indigence. Whoever had built this fortress, it had not been the creature known as Serene,
and he suspected it had sprung more from brains alike to those of her trusted advisor.
Unless he was very much mistaken, those brains kept the fortress keen.