Chapter 16: THE ELDER WITCH
Despite the crowd’s tumultuous welcome, Rose could not ignore her growing sense of unease as she was escorted into the Elder Witch’s dwelling. It was a gnarled, dynamic structure, each of its chambers hacked from the core of the giant ebony tree. Rose was led directly to its centre, into a small circular room with a dirt floor. The dimly lit hollow was crammed full of roughly made furniture, each piece peppered with a myriad of whorls, ridges and knots where branches had once sprung from the living wood.
A cauldron steamed and bubbled over a fire in the centre of the room. A loud crack broke the silence, Rose flinched as a burst of smoking embers shot out of the flames. The room smelled stagnant and musty like mouldy earth, and the fumes from the fire did little to improve matters. A jagged hole cut in the charred ceiling formed a pitifully ineffective chimney. The resulting pungent, choking haze leeched into Rose’s eyes, causing them to smart and prickle.
The Elder Witch stood next to the fire with one hand outstretched, indicating a large wooden armchair draped in bearskins.
“Lady Rose, I appreciate you accepting my invitation,” she said, turning briefly to the Twocast male who had escorted Rose in. “Thank you, Zac.”
His dismissal evident, Zac, a well-built young man with a mass of unkempt dark hair, nodded and smiled. The white clay painted onto his face cracked, small fragments flaking off and floating to the ground like tiny desiccated snowflakes.
As Zac left the dingy, stuffy room, the Elder Witch eased herself into a sturdy looking wooden rocking chair, its twisted limbs rubbed smooth by many decades of use. The old woman could not conceal her obvious discomfort as she gingerly lowered herself into her seat. Rose sat on the bearskin-covered chair, feeling a pang of sympathy. Old bones... and this damp atmosphere cannot be helping.
Despite getting little sleep over the previous few days, Rose looked the epitome of youth and vitality; cheeks flushed and hair shimmering like spun silver in the firelight. In stark contrast, the Elder Witch’s sparse white hair had long lost its lustre, and her paper-thin skin had grown cracked and splintered by the passage of time. All the same, Rose found herself marvelling at the piercing clarity of the woman’s bright violet eyes, and her delicate, angular bone structure, which gave her an ageless, timeless beauty that was surprisingly engaging.
“That was quite a performance you gave out there,” said Elder, sounding impressed, though her eyes remained unreadable. “In all my years I cannot ever remember hearing such a rousing soliloquy. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find anyone here who would argue with the power or the validity of your words.”
She paused, leaning forward, eyes narrowing as her smile vanished.
“But that was your intent was it not, Rose the Whyte.” Her words sliced through the air like shards of ice. “Is there no depth to your arrogance!”
Gripping the arms of the rocking chair, Elder’s long bony fingers whitened.
“What gives you the right to speak to my people in that way?”
Rose felt a tingle as the hairs on her neck bristled. She recalled Vega describing the incidents that had ostensibly built the Elder Witch’s evil reputation. The stories were mostly the product of rumour and gossip, and although now accepted as folklore they were almost certainly wildly exaggerated. Vega had cautioned her to be prudent just the same.
“I apologise, Elder,” said Rose, smoothing the tremor from her voice. “Maybe it would have been more judicious for me to have spoken to you first, but...”
“Indeed,” Elder’s jaw tightened, her eyes brimming with fury. “It was I who watched over these people. For nigh on a thousand years, I kept them free from persecution, educated them, fed them and healed them when they were sick. Where were you and your kind then Rose of the Whyte? What gives you the right to take them from me now and lead them off to fight in your war? I have earned my ryte of passage with these people Lady Rose and you most certainly have not.”
The old woman spat out the words with such venom that it ignited a furnace of fury within Rose. It’s not my war. I didn’t choose this, I didn’t choose to lead anyone into battle. I don’t have the luxury of choice.
Rose struggled to contain her emotions, two red blotches blazed high on her cheekbones. She gasped, gulping in a lungful of air; she’d been holding her breath. Whatever is at the core of this woman’s hatred is unlikely to be fixed by words alone, but I have to try.
“I had no intention of taking your people from you Elder.” Rose spoke the words softly, velvet, over cold, hard, steel. “because firstly, I was not aware that you owned these people, and secondly because I was expecting that, as their leader, you would accompany them. That aside, I am curious as to why you hate we ascendants with such passion.”
“Oh, you are curious are you?” Elder’s mouth twitched in amusement.
The woman’s sudden levity seemed ominous to Rose, she felt her heart lurch in her chest.
Elder pitched backwards in her chair, its rockers hammering into the ground where the wood had cut two deep grooves from centuries of rocking. Ultimately, her rocking stilled, her eyes clouding, as she gazed, entranced, into the flames of the fire.
A menacing silence filled the room filling Rose with a deep sense of foreboding, the way the thick, sound deadening air and dark clouds, herald the approach of a great storm.
Each pop and crackle from the fire seemed dulled and yet magnified a thousand times. Rose shuffled in her seat.
“My parents were Whyte ascendants,” Elder said abruptly, “though, of course, I never knew them.”
Her voice was tinged with such melancholy that Rose felt an instant empathy for this woman who, like herself, had no memories of her family, but Rose was also confused. Surely both of them cannot have been Whyte ascendants.
“You are surprised by that Lady Rose?” she snapped, shooting Rose a look cold enough to freeze fyre. “You think that being landborn I am not worthy of being a Whyte ascendant?”
Her jaws were clamped together so tightly that every muscle in her face appeared clenched.
“You think me and my magic sullied because I am mortal. That I cannot possibly possess the powers of an ascendant because I did not arrive in a cubiculum?”
Elder’s words were spoken with such bitterness that Rose began to doubt if she would ever be able to convince her to help them.
“No Elder, I assure you,” Rose’s throat had become parched and taut in her attempt at restraint, “that is not what I think at all.”
The implications of Elder’s revelation had started to register. Rose felt her chest tightening. It was as if the living walls of the small chamber had begun to grow inwards and would not stop until they had squeezed every breath from her body.
To have two ascendant parents was abhorrent, sacrilege. The chastity laws forbid Ascendants from bearing offspring. Even forming a romantic relationship with another ascendant is seen as a terrible crime resulting in enforced separation, exile and on occasions, long-term incarceration.
Rose met Elder’s stubbornly accusing eyes. She gave an unconscious, disconsolate sigh. How can I hope to win her trust when, until now, every Ascendant in the Afterlands denounced her very existence?
At the oratory, the subject of landborn ascendants was rarely discussed and only then in huddled groups with hushed voices. As far as Rose was aware, no landborn ascendant had ever survived into adulthood. Looking at Elder now, she finally understood how grotesque this law was, a law that made abortion of landborn children mandatory.
“I had heard that one of your parents was an ascendant,” said Rose steadily, “I was merely surprised to hear that they both were.”
Elder arched one delicate feathery brow.
“I admit that I am somewhat surprised that you have been made aware of my parentage to any extent. You Ascendants so like to pretend that we do not exist.”
Elder’s body relaxed as she rocked. The thud, thud, thud of the rockers captured the silence, daring Rose to disturb their rhythm. A glimmer of emotion lit the old woman’s eyes. Fear? Rose sensed fear, but also sadness and something else, anger? No, it was more than that. It was a dark, smouldering, soul consuming rage.
“My mother and father loved each other, but their love was unmentionable,” her voice brimmed with bitterness. “I assume you are aware that ascendants are forbidden from forming romantic relationships?”
Rose nodded. “We were made aware of all of the edicts of the Afterlands, shortly after our induction at the oratory.”
“I am sure you were,” Elder sneered, “but did they tell you why?”
“To prevent our potens from being diluted,” Rose’s eyes locked onto Elder, as the woman arched a quizzical brow. Rose elaborated. “We were told that procreation results in our potens becoming divided. That it would be shared between ourselves and our children. If this were permitted to continue over generations, then with each generation our magical potens would diminish. The eventual outcome would be that we would lose our powers entirely or they would become so feeble as to be of little use. Our Cognito Magister, Lady Tesler called it ethnic dilution.”
The Elder Witch roared with laughter, startling Rose for a second. Though her laughter had a surprisingly pleasant, musical quality to it that despite her anxiety, Rose found herself smiling.
“So that’s how they do it,” Elder’s face was bright with amusement.
Watching her, Rose saw what her people must see, a striking woman who, like a craggy, mist covered mountain in the early morning sunlight, had the kind of charisma that was remarkably intoxicating.
“I often wondered how it was that all you young ascendants seemed so accepting of the situation,” Elder said, with a chuckle. “I could never understand why there were so few illegitimate pregnancies. So many young, virile adolescents all of them thrown together, all fit and healthy and destined for productive and prosperous lives. Particularly as all of you are in possession of significant magical energy. Magic is such a potent aphrodisiac...”
Rose caught a flicker of something in Elder’s wistful eyes, and for a second, she felt peculiarly awkward.
“Did none of you ever think to question this law, Rose?” She asked, sounding disappointed. “Did you not feel the loss of this freedom, the freedom to procreate. To lie with someone you love, to cradle your child in your arms, or are you so young that as yet it holds little relevance?”
Rose flushed; she was finding the topic of conversation much too personal to share with a relative stranger. Besides, there were many more important things to discuss. The laws of chastity could wait until they had defeated Lord Ka.
“Truly, Elder I don’t think any of us has ever given it a second thought,” Rose struggled to hide her impatience, “not with everything else that has been happening. Lord Dux explained that we could fulfil our need to reproduce when we descended to Terra Coram, where there is no danger of ethnic dilution. We were encouraged to see the members of our cells as our families, and I suppose if I am honest, that we just accepted the laws and traditions as our norms.”
“Ah… there it is,” Elder, pointed a bony finger accusingly towards Rose. “Blind acceptance, the behaviour that enables discrimination, cruelty, corruption and victimisation to reign, and persuades fools to line up in gratitude to enjoy more of the same.”
Rose frowned as insight delivered by Elder’s words hit home. The more Rose discovered about the Afterlands, the more she realised how little she knew and how many lies she had so eagerly and unquestioningly swallowed.
“Enlighten me then,” Said Rose. “Elucidate me as to what the oratory textbooks do not reveal, tell me the truth. Your truth Elder, the truth about your parents and how you came to be here, the truth about why you are so incensed.”
“Ah… the truth,” Elder gave a snort of disdain. “The truth, my dear Rose, is only ever an opinion, never a fact. Whereas a lie... A lie can make speaking the truth a terrorist act. If I tell you my truth Rose of the Whyte, will you rage against the lies that you have willingly consumed, or will you turn those beautiful eyes to the ground and follow the long walked path of those who travelled before you?”
Elder got to her feet and lifted two cups from a small table beside her chair. Grasping both in one hand, she took the ladle from the cauldron and filled them with a murky yellow-orange liquid.
“Maybe,” Rose, was resolutely noncommittal, “I have learned not to make judgements without first obtaining all the relevant information,” she paused briefly. “A Magister of mine once told me that time spent in the pursuit of knowledge was never futile. That reconnaissance often rewards you with immense power. We are in great need of such power now Elder.”
The old woman straightened, hanging the ladle on its stand next to the fire.
“Sumac tea?” she said, seemingly impervious to Rose’s plea for assistance.
Elder proffered the cup towards Rose.
“It’s made from the seed heads of Staghorn Sumac. I hear it tastes like lemon, although unfortunately, lemons are a luxury that I have yet to experience.”
Rose took the cup in her hands. The brew smelled citrus sweet but looked unappetizing; a soup of brown flecks bobbing and diving like tiny insects.
“I added some honey for you,” said Elder, “it makes the beverage more palatable.”
“Thank you,” Rose fought to keep her frustration from her voice.
As she lifted the cup to her mouth, the steamy, faintly sweet, acidic vapour warmed her face and left a dewy sheen on her skin. Her lips closed around the smooth wooden cup, and then she paused, waiting cautiously for the Elder Witch to take the first sip.
Seemingly amused by this, Elder lifted her cup in a mocking toast, before gulping down a substantial mouthful of the tea.
“Go ahead,” she said, tilting her cup towards Rose, a wry smile twitching fleetingly at her lips. “It is entirely safe, and in spite of what you may have heard about me Lady Rose, I am not in the habit of poisoning young women, even if they do happen to be Whyte ascendants.”
Her smile broadened as Rose took a sip and attempted unsuccessfully to conceal her distaste of the bitter orange liquid.
“I’m afraid, it is somewhat of an acquired taste,” Elder chortled, “too sharp for you I expect. I should have added more honey, but, unfortunately, our honey is one of the few commodities that we can trade. Our bees feast on moonflower pollen, which grows only in the Ebony forest. It produces a thick, golden and particularly delicious variety of honey much prized by the Golds of Aurum. No doubt Vega is relieving us of the majority of our supplies as we speak.”
“Oh, I doubt that very much,” said Rose tersely, her cool slipping for an instant, “ by now if any Golds are left at all, they will be too busy trying to stay alive to appreciate your honey.”
“The Djinn have attacked Aurum?” Elder’s voice raised an octave as if she had believed it absurd to imagine that the Djinn would even consider attacking the Golds.
“As we left a legion of Afreet were amassing over Aureus,” said Rose, looking suddenly drained, “It is unlikely that the people of the capital would have either the time to flee or the means to fight them. Everyone who was there is probably dead, and it is only a matter of time before Ka and his army have control of all the major cities.”
“I was not aware of that... ” Elder paused briefly before appearing to come to a decision. “You must think me obstructive. That was not my intention. I apologise. From now on I will attempt to answer your questions honestly, Rose of the Whyte. Maybe then you will understand why, even now, I am reluctant to become involved in your war.”
She took another mouthful of tea, sipping it slowly, her eyes never deviating from Rose’s.
“During the Great Dragon War my mother and father were Whyte ascendants, both of them extremely powerful wizards,” she gave a rueful sigh. “They fell in love, and I was the forbidden fruit of that love. Despite what you may have heard at the oratory, these things do happen, particularly during troubled times. Indeed, the realisation that you may never have the opportunity to experience one of life’s most glorious joys may take a healthy, if illicit curiosity and transform it into an obsession. With all the senseless death, confusion and chaos of war, my conception was practically inevitable and relatively easy to conceal. My parents had little option but to leave me here with the Twocasts while they went off to fight their battles. I do not know whether they intended to return, but whatever their intentions, they never came back. All they left me was a single gift, by way of another, a few weeks after they departed.”
“I am sure they would have returned if they could have,” said Rose. Is that why she hates Ascendants? “Is that the reason you’re reluctant...”
“It is why I do not wish to take any part in your battles,” Elder’s voice tightened. “My parents were killed in that war, ripped to pieces, along with every other Whyte in the Afterlands. Yet our world did not alter, it remains just as broken today as it was then. Look at how we live.” She cast her eyes about the room. “We exist here in exile, in cold, damp hovels hewn from trees, our feet bare and blackened, our children undernourished and our bones aching from years of relentless toil. We eat only what we can forage or kill, in the winter we barely survive, and every year many of us do not. In my world, Rose of the Whyte, the truth, is that my people have to convince themselves every day that they are lucky if one of their children survives into adulthood, lucky. Weigh this against the sheltered, opulent lives of the Golds of Aurum. Then tell me which truth you prefer, tell me how this knowledge makes you feel Rose the Whyte. Does this information provide you with the power you crave?”
Rose struggled to meet her challenging glare. She felt the shame and remorse of her ancestors, of the four that resided within her, weighing her down, dragging her into a fathomless ocean of guilt. Like Elders parents, the four had given their lives believing they were fighting for freedom of their people. To make the Afterlands a safer and better place, and yet their demise seems only to have exposed and solidified the prejudice and disunity of its population.
“You heard what I said out there Elder,” Rose swallowed hard as her eyes began to smart. I can’t blame her for not trusting me, I doubt I would either if I were her. “I meant every word I said, Elder. You and your people have the power I crave, it is a power driven by discontent, injustice and hardship. People will readily fight for change when they have so little to lose.”
Rose looked squarely, unblinking, into the doubt clouded eyes of the wise old woman, who, with her bright violet eyes, silver hair and fiery stubbornness, could have been family.
They sat in silence for some time. Rose struggled to find the right words to try to convince her, but they eluded her, there were no right words. The remorse she felt for the cruelty of her ancestors and of every ascendant who had gone before, flooded over her. Rose’s pale, delicate hands clenched into a tight ball in her lap, the rose quartz crystal in her ring, pulsating, charged with magical energy, like a star primed to explode. Elder’s gaze rested there for a while.
“What is it that you need from us?” Elder said.
Rose let out a gasp. She had been holding her breath again. Little by little the overwhelming sense of guilt and remorse began to evaporate, giving way to another sensation. She struggled to comprehend the jumble of emotions stirring within her. It was more than just relief she felt, more than gratitude even, it was pride, not in herself, but in the Elder Witch. This woman had so many reasons to hate Rose and everything she stood for, yet she sat here before her and offered her help, unconditionally. Gripped by a sudden compulsion Rose slid from her chair and fell to her knees at the feet of the old woman.
“No, I will not accept your help,” Rose covered the witch’s bony hands with her own. “Not before you have my apology. You deserve an apology Elder, and it is long overdue. On behalf of my ancestors and of all the ascendants I represent, I apologise. I am sorry that because of our failings you were abandoned here to live in exile. I cannot imagine how hard it has been for you. I cannot undo this great wrong Elder, no matter how much I may wish it, but if you allow me to try, I will do everything in my power to prevent it ever happening again.”
Elder tilted Rose’s chin until their eyes met and then she glanced away as a solitary tear slipped from the corner of one violet eye. Hurriedly she wiped it away before lifting her arms to Rose’s shoulders and folding them about her in a warm embrace.
“Rose the Whyte,” said Elder, “you have something about you that is quite enchanting. I cannot ever remember...”
She paused for a second as if musing on something, then shook her head, dismissing whatever thought had pervaded her consciousness.
Rose got to her feet, sobering as she stood before this woman who had the power to dash all of their plans.
“You asked me what I needed from you Elder,” she said, “but it’s not what I need from you that is important; it’s that we need to do it together. We have to meet with the Ferrum resistance and key representatives from your community and quickly because it’s likely that very shortly, if not already, Lord Ka will discover where we are and will attempt to eradicate us all.”
Rose felt her body sway as a wave of fatigue washed over her. Although her mind was filled with thoughts of what may lay ahead, her body was trembling with exhaustion.
“I will do as you ask Rose of the Whyte,” Elder smiled sympathetically, “on the condition that you get some rest. I will wake you as soon as everyone is ready, I promise.”
Elder raised a hand, stifling Roses half-hearted attempt at protest.
“My dear child, you will be of no use to anyone if you do not have the strength even to stand,” she said, “I’ve had a room prepared for you.”
Rose hesitated. I’ve no time for sleep, I must prepare to lead an army, and I have absolutely no idea how...