Part 13 – This Isn’t Going to End Well
“One of you,” the witch explained, “Must make a sacrifice.”
Jala turned to look at Freya with heavy heart. The girl was in tears, but had steadied her cries to a stuttering sob. Her right leg was cut, torn, bloody. It didn’t look quite right. Her left leg was finished, unless they got immediate medical attention. Moss would not cover it, either figuratively or literally.
Jala told Freya to brace herself as best she could, and felt along her right leg. At a couple of points the girl screamed, but the bones were not jutting out hugely. A clean break then, or a fracture. Small mercies. The warrior stood, and addressed the Star Witch and the Dwarf.
“I will do it,” said Jala. “It is the only way.”
“Jala,” said Avatkch, “We will be forever in your debt for this.”
Jala ignored him, and unsheathed her blade.
When Jala was fourteen she had a hunting dog. She would head out in the early afternoon, and return in the evening with her catch. She was known to be a great hunter for her age, though a lot of that was down to her dog. Once it caught a scent, an animal was as good as dead. Its jaw must’ve been stronger than a badger’s, to bring down a foal like that.
Her sex and her prowess made her a target for resentment amongst other hunters her age. One, Banol, was unskilled with a blade but was already a superior bowman. Jala knew, then, that it was him who had fired the arrow that pierced her dog’s throat one evening as she returned from the hunt. There was no-one to be seen in the clearing that surrounded the village, and the distance to the nearest shelter was great indeed.
Jala looked at the dog, its eyes registering fear and confusion. They could do nothing to stop its life slipping away. Jala pushed that thought aside. The bow came from her left, and landed at such an angle in the creature’s neck that it must have been fired from…
She rolled, and felt feathers flick her cheek. Now she knew for certain, and had a lot of ground to make up. Keeping low, she sprinted for the old lookout post. It was a burned out platform in the midst of a formerly great tree, but a skilful climber could still make their way up there to secure a vantage point.
As she ran, she felt a cry go up in her throat. A rage, justified and pure, that congealed into hard determination. Jala barely noticed when the arrow hit her shoulder, and she found herself on her back at the foot of the tree.
Banol climbed down, grinning, and stood over her.
“Now you’re going to wish I’d hit your heart,” he said, “I could’ve, if I wanted to.”
Jala spat bloody sputum towards him. He laughed, and dragged Jala to the far-side of the tree from the village. Then he began undoing his belt, and knelt down next to her.
“Not so great a hunter now, are you?” he whispered. “Without that arm, you can’t carry a blade, and if you can’t carry a blade what are you good for?”
“Nothing,” Jala whispered, and thrust her other hand forward towards the boy’s groin.
When she felt warm liquid across her fingers, she dragged the blade upwards. It surprised even Jala that it reached and plucked out his eye.
Jala had, from an early age, trained with her weaker arm until it became as strong as the other. Once the wound had healed, she began training with it again. Her hunting improved immeasurably, as from this point she had no-one to rely on but herself.
She couldn’t remember the dog’s name.
“How will this work?” asked Jala, “If I am over here?”
“It’s not based on contact with the blood,” said Kru, “It’s the life-force. The energy. Once it’s released I can tap it.”
“And how much will you need?”
“A lot,” admitted the witch, “I have to undo what has been done, and then perform it again. There are locks and traps and secret ways through this spell.”
“You speak as though it were a solid entity.”
The Star Witch said nothing. She raised Marek in both hands, and began to whisper. It sounded like last breaths being sucked back into bodies. Marek shivered briefly, and then went limp. Freya’s sobs grew louder.
“Fear not, he is ready,” said Kru. She moved her head up to address the warrior. “Are you?”
“Yes,” said Jala. “I am ready, and… I am sorry.”
Without looking away from the Star Witch, Jala plunged her sword through Freya’s heart.
Avatkch gave a yelp of surprise. The girl’s eyes widened. Jala knew the look that would be on her face. Fear and confusion. She put the thought aside, and waited until the vibrations ceased along the blade of the sword before pulling it free.
The Star Witch stood opposite her, breathing heavily, saying nothing.
“You must perform the spell,” said Jala.
A scream. A darkening, as the air became thick with what was not. It was as if Jala had blinked, and there now stood in front of her a large furry bridge. Marek’s eyes were closed. Kru was crossing him, and Jala stepped aside. The Star Witch knelt down by the body, placed her hand on it, and whispered. When she stood, she held the dark staff she had gifted the girl. It was made from the wood of the branch that Freya had used to rescue Jala from the Whore of Knives. It had always looked as the night sky previously, but now that sky took on ineffable hues of green and red.
Jala crossed the stoat-bridge ahead of the witch. She half expected to be pushed off, but made it to the other side to be greeted by the open mouthed Avatkch. He shut his mouth again, took his eyes off her, and said:
“We should be through the mines by the end of day.”
Then he spoke no more.
The Star Witch reduced Marek to his normal size, and then woke him. The stoat struggled sleepily, so Kru tapped him with the staff. He shook his head, and his senses gradually restored themselves.
It was as if he were hit by lightning.
Marek stood bolt upright, a desolate squeal echoed through the mines and down the chasm. He ran down the Star Witch and to the chasm’s edge, pining for his mistress, clinging onto the possibility that not only was she alive but that she was coming back over to him, that what he saw on the other side was not utterly the end of a loved one.
But it was Freya’s body. Nothing more.
The stoat turned to the three bipeds. Avatkch was still in shock. The Star Witch burned with barely suppressed fury. Only Jala seemed calm.
Blood dripped off the end of her sword. With a screech, Marek fled upwards and away into the crevices and cracks of the mines, into the darkness above. Kru’s restraint snapped.
“Why?” she shouted.
“A crippled orphan. With a day’s journey through mines, and further travel through mountains, hills and valleys til we reached a healer. And we needed blood.”
“You said you would make the sacrifice.”
“And I did.”
“She was a child!”
“I will not say it was a good death, but it was the least we could manage,” Jala turned to Avatkch. “Lead the way. If I am to mend my hand I will need light to see by.”
The dwarf did not reply, but sighed and began to walk. He heard the others’ footfalls behind him, and wiped a tear away. He almost punched himself in the eye when he heard a voice in his head.
“Avatkch,” said Kru, “Do I have your permission to talk here?”
“Yes, of course.” The dwarf stopped himself from turning his head, and continued walking as if nothing were happening. “What are we going to do?”
“You will lead us out of here, and then the choice to follow is yours. I, though, will stay with Jala.”
“You can’t! She’s-”
“I can, and will,” thought the Star Witch. “I have already taken responsibility.”
“Responsibility? For the murder of a girl?”
“It is not the end of this,” said Kru, and for a second Avatkch’s mind was ablaze.
There was Death, in all her many guises, beaten and bruised and broken into new shapes. Yet, her mind was still as blunt as it ever was. Fire, blue-hot and bubbling within, and eyes the size of suns that blazed with malicious contempt.
And then it was gone, and he was back underground, walking away from a girl’s body, with the drips echoing and the darkness closing in on all sides.
“The stoat remembers,” said the Star Witch.
Marek watched them leave from atop Freya’s body. He had trembled with cold, fear and anger, and sought warmth and refuge in the only safe place he knew. What was his path now? He did not want to stay here for too long, before it became too distressing and consumed him.
What he wanted, more than anything, is to be more than a stoat. A creature capable of tearing very specific throats from very specific bodies; a vessel for hate, and anger, and revenge. There was nothing else in the world that he desired at that very moment, but he could not achieve it, not yet, and his prey was escaping him. They were out of sight in the darkness, but they could not have gone far. Still, what could he do as of yet? There were too many thoughts in his head, too many voices clouding that virginal thought, and he was unable to silence them, unable to concentrate on avenging his-
Marek stood still. He looked, smelt and listened. There was no-one. No-one else in the tunnels who the cry could have come from. He stopped, and thought the word again. The process was unfamiliar, but he concentrated, honing in on the part of his mind that knew what must be done:
“Betrayal!” squeaked Marek, again.
The voices in Marek’s head were silent for a few seconds.
Then, they all thought as one: “Well, this is new.”
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