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THE BLACK WITCH

“You will do what you are told when you are told.”

Isolde’s father loomed above her, he stood upright out of his dark oak throne, his face strained red with anger at his daughter’s outburst. His voice shook the cold grey walls of the hall and silenced the crowd within. The entire village looked on in shock as she stood against her father, defiantly meeting his gaze.

“Sit down, Isolde.” He hissed between gritted teeth, the spittle catching on his trimmed brown beard.

She stood there, heart pounding in her chest, teeth gritted, fury in her eyes. She could feel the eyes of every single person in the hall. The whole town had been called together tonight. Dark news such as this hadn’t been heard in years.

It was a large room, easily housing the hundred or so people standing in audience. Dark oak timbers made up the floors, rubbed smooth with age. They ran from the ancient wrought-iron entrance doors all the way to the throne stage where Isolde and her father were locked in a battle of will. A long fire pit commanded the centre of the room, running its length and held together by masterfully chiselled black granites that sparkled in the tongues of flame. Great oaken pillars held the roof high, as thick as the trees they came from. Beautiful engraving of dragons and hounds and birds and heroes ran up and down their length. The roof itself loomed far overhead, it was dark now in the night, but with the light of day, the thick yellow thatch could be seen glowing in the sun like ripe fields of wheat. Intricately engraved iron oil-burners hung low from the ceiling’s crossbeams, they spat out tongues of fire that let off long shadows which danced across the walls and up to the seat of the Jarl himself.

Before the silent crowd, Jarl and daughter stood off, eyes locked in dread determination. He was a heavy-set man, strong and commanding, his long brown hair salted with grey. Isolde seemed so frail in comparison, her golden hair shining in the light of the flames was perfectly parted, held back by two fine braids stretching around each side of her head before meeting at the back. Her emerald eyes shining furiously as she stood proud and tall. Someone from the mass called out, a rough voice, stern and mocking, “Do as your daddy says, Little Bird. Sit back down and let the grown-ups sort this out.”

Isolde shot a glance into the crowd. Her eyes lost their lustre and darkened as she glared into the gathered townsfolk. It was Wulfric who had spoken, his smug grin of chipped white teeth standing out against his darkly weathered face. She met the eyes of the hulking man,  the rasping condescending tone could not have belonged to anyone else.

Isolde glanced back at her father.

“Sit down,” he commanded once more

It was all she could do before turning back to the chair behind her and slumping down into it. She closed her eyes, sighed and listened as the meeting continued.

A weasely man stepped forward, a poor peasant-farmer by the look of his roughly sewn rags.

“Why don’t we just send word to King Krazkul?” He said in a nasal tone, “the threat would be barely a day’s travel from his door.”

Wulfric laughed, “King Krazkul? I don’t think he or his dwarven company have seen the light of the sun since they set foot in their mountain. You’ll find no help there.”

“Surely it is worth the message, these are dark tidings, Wulfric, we need help.” Said Ivar.

“Wulfric is right, Ivar,” Isolde’s father said. “We deal with these things on our own, the way we always have.”

“This is no small matter of border raiders, Jarl,” Ivar continued. “The harvest has never been so thin, the fields failed early, the animals are half starved, and now our livestock rot in the field.”

“And what would you suggest, Ivar? If Krazkul hides in his mountain, who do we turn to? King Hrothgar? Would you ask us to bend our knees to the High-King and beg for his help?”

Ivar’s lip quivered at the mention of the High-King and he broke his gaze with the Jarl.

“I will do it, Jarl.” Wulfric said, “I will head north, if it is Orlog then she will be stowed away in her caves.”

The Jarl stopped for a moment in thought. His hand brushed his short speckled beard.

“How do we know it is Orlog?” He slowly questioned, looking out to the congregation of people, “Why would she return now?”

The group began to murmur amongst themselves before Ivar stepped forward once more.

“Jarl,” he said, “We have all seen the signs. Have you not witnessed the bloated cattle and sheep? It’s witchcraft!”

“Orlog hasn’t been heard of in decades, Ivar. This could be anything, some new plague for all we know. We should wait to hear the council of Skaldi.”

“Skaldi!” Wulfric laughed stepping forward, “If we wait for that beggar to arrive we’ll be dead by winter. Ivar, show Jarl Sigurd your lamb.”

Ivar stepped up to the wooden stage, a package of wriggling rags under his arm. He hefted it to the floor before the Jarl’s feet and unwrapped the rotten remains of a lamb barely six months old. Its wool soiled with filth and pus where bulbous growths swelled out the skin. Many had burst leaving sores that wept openly. Isolde nearly retched at the smell of living flesh rotting away. The poor thing squirmed, it lifted its head from the wooden floor and gagged a moan, but its swollen blue tongue had choked its airway.

“Kill the wretched thing,” the Jarl ordered as his eyes darted away from the bundle of misery.

“There is more Jarl,” Ivar said flipping the lamb to its other side.

Isolde couldn’t hold her stomach, the bitter acid shot up to her mouth filling her eyes with tears. She choked her mouthful back down and noticed her father’s eyes again dart away from the putrid animal. The side Ivar had offered him was much like the other, full of pustules and sores. But across its ribs, the wool had rotted away leaving the dark markings of a strange sigil. It looked as if it had been seared into the skin from within. Red burns stood out against the pink skin forming three hideous crescent moons, their malevolent horns facing out as if to mock whoever laid eyes upon them.

“Get the thing out of here!” The Jarl roared.

“It’s the Black Witch,  Jarl, there can be no doubt,” Wulfric said.

“I know,” the Jarl snapped, “and I know she will tear you apart if you go.”

Isolde had heard enough. “Let me go, father, she doesn’t know…”

“She knows more than you think,” her father roared.

Isolde cast her face down hiding the blood boiling to her cheeks. Let me speak, she silently screamed.

The Jarl paced back and forth, his eyes cast down at the floor as he rubbed his dark wiry beard. He was still a relatively young man closing in on his fortieth year, but the rigours of leadership had begun to show early through the deep furrows of his face and the grey that speckled his dark brown hair.

“Go to her cave,” he said to Wulfric, “but keep your distance. If she is there, come home and we will drive her away together.”

A squeaky voice shot out from the back of the crowd, “And if she is not there?”

The Jarl squinted into the low light of the hall and caught a glimpse of young Ulfer, standing on the tips of his toes as his head bobbled just over the sea of people.

“Ulfer,” the Jarl smiled, “If she is not there then we will hunt her down. This time the wretched hag does not get a second chance.”

Isolde was clenching her fists. “Let me go with you, Wulfric! Let me prove myself.”

Wulfric laughed at her, “You are too beautiful to die, young Isolde. Stay home where you are safe.”

I am not too young! The blood ran from her face. Her eyes turned wild at the insult and before anyone could stop her she rushed at the giant of a man. I will be heard! Her eyes pinned Wulfric, his face, his scars, his long red beard hanging in two thick braids. I will be respected! She saw his smug smile, her hands flying out to tear it off his face. Crack! A sudden burst of pain threw her back reeling. She hit the floor.

Isolde was still thrashing, desperately trying to claw out before realising what had happened. The great man had thrown her off like a rag doll, The shadows of the crowd came smothering over her, the laughter assailing her ears. Isolde’s stomach dropped. The laughter was one thing but her father and Wulfric stood above her. The look they gave made her feel ice cold. The laughter was silenced in an instant. The great doors to the Jarl’s hall suddenly creaked open releasing a howling wind that threw out the fires and chilled Isolde to the bone.

A young man stood at the entrance, his dark brown shaggy hair blowing in the wind. His outstretched arms held the entrance against the wind, a war axe in one hand, a round shield in the other. It was Harald, his eyes were wild and the gathered people looked on in shock. The Jarl pushed his way through the crowd. Harald met his eyes,

“The gates…” He stammered, “they are at the gates!”

 

***

 

Isolde rushed from the Jarl’s hall to the gate of the town with the crowd at her heels. The small road led down the hill and past rows of small longhouses with their dark stone fronts and roughly thatched roofs. The full moon had risen high into the cloudless night illuminating the world around her. The settlement’s wall ringed around the village in a great wooden circle. Hundreds of pine trees had been felled in its construction, each dug deep into the earth so that that they struck out skyward like a mighty crown of glistening spears. The gatehouse looked south. It was nothing more than two intricately engraved oaken doors, heavily barred from the inside and designed more to impress any attacker than to stop them from entering.

“Siggi?” A voice called out from the other side of the battlements, “Jaaaarl Siiiguuurd?” The words sang, stretching out the name.

Isolde stopped short of the gates and waited in silence with the rest of the crowd. Harald stood by her, his warrior outfit doing little to make her feel protected. It was a dead night, it seemed the birds themselves had fled in terror leaving only the sound of the wind which came as light draughts from the east.

“Jarl!” the voice boomed in impatience, “Do not make me drag you out!”

Isolde’s father threw open the gates and stood alone. To Isolde’s eyes, he looked like a hero from the sagas, his body silhouetted against the multitude of lit torches held by a host she could not quite see.

Harald leant into her ear, “It’s Hrothgar,” he whispered. “I saw the ravens on their shields.”

“How many?” she hissed back in anticipation.

“I… I’m not sure, maybe thirty?” He hesitated.

Isolde moved forward to gain a better look, but between the gates narrow space, her father’s body, and the darkness of night she could see very little.

“Olaf,” The Jarl called out, addressing a central man, “Go home, we have nothing left for you.”

Olaf laughed, “That is not how it works Jarl Siggi. You don’t mind if I call you Siggi do you?”

Isolde could hear the man’s arrogance.

“There is no food for you,” her father said. “There is nothing left, go home.”

“No food?” He smiled, “In all the village you have nothing? No weapons, no men, no women, no animals, none of anything?”

“Nothing for you, Olaf. We have enough for the winter.”

Olaf motioned for the Jarl to come to him. To speak in private. Isolde couldn’t stand being unable to see, she used the short distraction to slip onto the walls and dragged Harald with her. From on top, she could see what was happening. Below her stood a troop of men, they looked huge in the dark, handpicked warriors wearing thick furs with the glimmer of mail-shirts shimmering in the moonlight. Some wore helmets of the northern style with thick twisted horns like that of a ram. The others had their skulls shaved leaving the sides tattooed and thick streams of intertwined hair running down the backs of their necks. She spied each from the walls and noted that Harald was right, they were Hrothgar’s men. The black ravens painted on their shields meant they were from the capital, Ravenscar. It sent a shiver down her spine.

Olaf and the Jarl broke off their whispering and the Jarl turned back toward his town.

With a clear voice, he called out, “Olaf has come all the way from Ravenscar to extract a tribute from us so that we will acknowledge and accept the protection of the High King, Hrothgar. I have told him the truth, we have nothing to pay with.” The Jarl paused for a moment, “However, the wise King, in all his mercy has said that any who will not pay, will burn.”

A heavy silence filled the air. The Jarl turned back toward Olaf.

“And I say,” He spat, locking eyes with Olaf, “That we cannot pay, and we will not burn.”

Olaf walked toward the gates in slow heavy steps, addressing not the Jarl, but the town as a whole,

“Then send forward a champion,” He said drawing a blade, “And defend yourselves in the old way.”

The crowd began to murmur and squirm. Names were thrown around, but one quickly became dominant, Harald. As the crowd began to sing in unison, the boy shrunk in size as he stood beside Isolde on the battlements. She looked at him in pity.

“Send the boy!” A woman cried.

“Let him be blooded!” Cried another.

Harald’s eyes lit up with fear and Isolde raised her voice,

“I will fight.” She called out.

Her father raised his hands and silenced the crowd.

“No one is fighting!” He bellowed.

Olaf spat at his feet, “Coward,” he sneered, “maybe I’ll take her home with us.”

The Jarl whipped his sword from its scabbard and stepped forward. Isolde thought he grew in stature, his chest bursting forward and his head held high like a royal king.

“Come take her.” He bellowed.

The raider stepped back and laughed.

“We’ll be back, Jarl Sigurd.”

Olaf turned and slipped through the ranks of his men. Each followed suit but there was no rush in their step as they slowly turned and disappeared into the darkness. Isolde watched them go before noticing her father’s menacing eyes glaring up at her. With the town watching on he raised his sword at her.

“You,” he commanded with a voice seething with rage, “you will go home and you will not leave your room until I come for you!”

***

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Robert D. Jones

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