Chapter 2: Priestess of the Stars
Obscured in a cloak and shawl, the lonely witch was the sole wanderer on a deserted Castile road. The road stretched far in either direction, cutting through measureless expanses of blonde dead grass and parched red earth. Dawn approached over the low-sloped hills, its rays of light stabbing into the fading darkness of the starry sky. How she loved those glittering stars and how she loathed that garish sun approaching. With its bright warmth it distracted all to what lie beyond, she thought, like a mother’s coddling embrace preventing a child from seeing the world. It was just a distraction from the infinite dark greatness it tried to conceal.
The woman stepped off the dirt road, set her satchel down and took a seat behind a withered old tree, hard and dry. She nested her back in a convenient crook in the trunk, made herself comfortable and lifted her gaze towards the heavens. She stared back on the retreating night one last time. Many associated the sun with God, and many of those lacked perspective, naturally since their sun’s light blinded them from seeing anything else. The sun came and went—a temporary sovereign at best, always yielding to the void of the night sky. The stars were the ones that always remained vigilant even when they could not be seen. They watched and waited for the sun to leave so that they could reclaim dominion over this world as they did so many others out there.
Her god was of the stars and that vast, dark, infinite space that lay between them, vaster than the sun, the earth, and that beautiful full moon combined. She feared this god, she hated this god, and she revered her all the same. At what cost were her blessings, and was there any way to be free of her? She would find the answers she sought at Jarangosa. But that was still so far away.
“Jarangosa?” a voice whispered on the wind.
Nekayah jumped, surprised to hear another human voiced. She turned and saw perched on a branch, a nightingale. Nekayah assumed she had wandered into a dream. Did that bird just speak?
“Jarangosa,” the bird said, speaking human words from its tiny beak. “That is where you are heading?”
“I do,” Nekayah said.
“You wish to confront our Mother Beyond the Veil, and break your covenant with her?”
Nekayah nodded. “I do!”
The bird said nothing. It simply twitched its head and fell off the branch, plopping by Nekayah’s feet. She nudged the little creature, but it was stiff and dead, so she kicked it away from her. She understood necromancy well enough. Someone was trying to send her a message. But who? Who in this wide world was familiar with such arts and still lived?
The witch sat for a while under the tree, pondering. She would not let herself be spooked by talking birds! Still, the thought of someone like herself living in this land did not sit well with her. She was supposed to be the last. It was supposed to end with her. Gazing at the sky, watching each shining orb get absorbed by the ravenous encroaching light, she wondered if her god was staring back at her, laughing. But her thoughts started to crumble and fade as her tired mind melded with the fading stars.
Nekayah awoke only to realize that she had fallen asleep behind the tree. Her body jolted in that uncanny way, bolting her head upright, lighting her eyes with primeval panic. She calmed herself. There was nothing to worry about. She was alone.
The sun was casting its white light over the sky and morning dew still clung to the grass and dirt, but exactly how long she could only guess. She was, for the moment, still alone, but the sound of voices and plodding horse hooves caught her attention. They came from further down the road with the sun to their backs.
Two fancily clad young men, barely older than boys, wearing brightly dyed clothes under their riding cloaks which were pinned together with bull-head brooches. They rode beside one another on chestnut stallions, trotting down the road. Both had heads of tawny hair, immaculate and glossy, albeit one man’s was a halo of tight ringlets while the other’s hair hung straight and limp. The curly-haired boy had his head held low while the other had his tossed back in laughter. She could practically smell their overbearing perfume from this distance. The witch read them as nobles without a second thought and was quick to hide herself behind the tree. Young men were trouble enough, young men who assumed they could get away with it was worse. Their voices grew louder as they grew closer and much to the woman’s chagrin there was not enough tree between her and the young lords to warrant a good hiding place.
“I think there’s someone there,” one man said.
“Come out bandit!” cried the other.
“Don’t be hasty with your judgments, brother. We don’t know if he’s a thief.”
“Who else would hide behind a tree? Come out before we run you through!”
The woman waited for a single moment, biting her lip, conceding to the reality that she had been spotted. She stepped out from behind her tree, slowly, keeping her head low, keeping her face shrouded by her cowl. But even at this angle she saw the refinery of their leather boots and masterwork rapiers hanging off their hips. “I have no business with you, my lords, you need not waste your time on me.”
“She’s a woman?” the curly-haired boy said.
“What’s a woman doing all the way out here?” asked the long-haired boy. “Speak up, quickly!”
“I am simply traveling, my lord,” Nekayah said. “Spare me no mind.” She hated spitting out such formal addresses to such haughty strangers. They were not her lords any more than she was their subject. She wanted nothing to do with them, yet all nobles ever wanted, it seemed, was unwarranted attention. “If you permit it, I would like to continue on my way.”
The long-haired man got off his horse and strutted over to the cloaked woman. “Why so eager to leave our company. Surely, you must know who we are.”
The woman held her ground, but the courteous tone in her voice was already starting to wear thin. “I’m sure you two are from an old, illustrious family. Unfortunately, I’m merely too ignorant to know which one. Please, I’m not worth your time. I bid you good day.”
The woman turned and started to head down the road, but the young lord grabbed her shoulder. His hand was heavy and his grip was strong, locking the woman down in mid step. Bad memories tingled through her body. She placed one hand slightly on the handle of her ivory dagger hidden beneath the folds of her cloak, but refrained from striking just yet.
“I’m the eldest son of the Duke of Palencia, Romano Juarez, and this is my baby brother Philippe. We are the most eligible and handsome bachelors in the region. Even the most ignorant farm girls know this. We are giving you a great honor by speaking with you.”
“Forgive my brother’s forwardness,” Philippe interjected. “It is not often we find women alone on the road during our morning rides…If you’re not going far, we could escort you to your destination. The open road can be quite dangerous. There’s news of bandits growing in numbers lately.”
“You are younger but more mature, I see,” Nekayah replied. “I appreciate your offer, but I must decline.”
The Romano reached for the woman’s cowl. “Enough of this, let’s see if we’ve been wasting our time on! You better not be ugly!”
With a swift tug he pulled back her shawl to reveal her mahogany face, high cheekbones, and braids of coarse black hair decorated in white cowry shells. Romano stepped back in surprise.
“She’s a blackamoor!” he yelped. “By God, what’s one of your kind doing so far north?”
“I am Abyssinian,” the woman corrected.
“Abyssinia...I’ve heard that is a Christian kingdom,” Philippe said. He got off his horse and approached the dark woman with a quizzical glint in his eye, like he was trying to appraise a rare gemstone.
“It is, for the most part, yes. You are well educated indeed. Not many here know of my homeland.”
“I’ve dreamt of traveling the world since I was a boy. I know about many kingdoms most have never heard of. But more pressingly, any Christian woman is worthy of my respect, regardless of their origin. What may I call you?”
Philippe gently took Nekayah’s hand and kissed it. “Nekayah of Abyssinia…such a beautiful name.”
Nekayah allowed herself a brief smile. He smelled slightly of lavender. “It’s as if you’ve stepped out of a poem.”
“Brother, must you always make me look like the brute?” Romano said. “Don’t waste your time courting a Moor with your charm!”
Romano threw his hands in the air. “One horrid corner of the earth is no different than another!” He turned to his brother. “If you fancy her then sample her in the fields for bit. Maybe I’ll give her a go when you’re done. Then we can return home, but let us not waste all day here. The sun’s getting hot.”
Upon hearing those words Nekayah snatched her hand back. Her smile evaporated. “I must be going now.”
Nekayah reached for her satchel next to the tree stump but felt the strong hands of Romano grasp her tight yet again. A gentle struggle was not enough to break free and Nekayah realized the time for courtesy had gone.
“Let go!” she yelled.
“Romano, what are you doing?” Philippe said.
Romano held Nekayah tight. “We shouldn’t waste this opportunity, brother. Even I admit she’s pretty for a Moor.”
Nekayah spun around to face her assaulter and cracked a firm slap across his face.
Unaccustomed to being struck, Romano wailed and reached for his wounded red cheek, letting go of his quarry. Before the insulted lord could compose himself, he was met with a handful of yellow dust that the Abyssinian had pulled from somewhere under her cloak. The soreness in his cheek became a soothing tingle compared to the fiery pain that attacked his eyeballs. They bulged red like tiny tomatoes popping out of his skull, and closing them was all he could do to try and spare himself most of the burning agony. His throat was next to feel the effects of the powder, as it too started to itch, throwing the panicked lord into a fit of wild coughing. He collapsed to the ground, cursing.
“Witch!” he wheezed. “Damn you!”
“It was your fault mistaking me for being easy prey.”
The woman watched for a moment as Philippe went over to try and help his anguishing brother, giving him a drink from his water skin. The poor lord could barely choke it down before coughing it back up again. Water wasn’t going to ease his pain, Nekayah knew, but only the slow, agonizing passage of hours.
“I’ll kill you!” Screaming, Romano drew his rapier and began waving it about in all directions in a blind fury. Philippe tried to save himself, but he did not escape the reach of his brother’s sword in time. The thin blade cut across the young lord’s forearm while it was raised in defense. It would have taken off his nose otherwise. His purple sleeve turned dark and wet. Philippe shouted at his brother to stop, but no sensible words could reach Romano’s ears.
Feeling it time to disappear, Nekayah scooped up her satchel and dashed off the road into the sea of tall dead grass. Philippe called out behind her, pleading for her to come back and that he was sorry, but the Abyssinian, quite frankly, did not care.
She pressed further, deeper into the yellow thicket, but quickly concluded that this was not one of her better escape strategies. The grass was thicker and stronger than she expected, and with every step she could feel the grass trying to hold her back. So unyielding it was that she had to save herself from tripping over the stubborn stuff several times before she decided to slow her pace. Another inhibiting factor was that she could barely see over the grass, making her trudge on without the faintest idea of where she was actually heading. The final irritation came from the sound of horse hooves crushing the grass behind her, growing louder by the second.
A familiar chestnut horse came around her, blocking her path. Philippe brought his horse to a stop right in front of the desperate woman and she ceased running. In the background they heard Romano’s wailing curses stretching over the field.
“Please, listen to me,” Philippe started. “I’m sorry about all this, truly I am. I admit, my brother has always been an unwholesome scoundrel. I only want to help you.”
“I’ve heard your apology, now be gone!” Nekayah reached into her pouch, prepared to strike. Philippe was too high to be reached by her powder, but his horse wasn’t.
“I’m afraid you’re going to need my help now whether you want it or not. My brother will seek retribution for what you did to him—bloody retribution. So unless you have a horse stashed away in that bag of yours, I suggest you suggest you get on mine.” Philippe extended his good arm and waited for the Abyssinian to make up her mind.
Nekayah grasped his hand and the young lord helped her climb onto the back of his steed. Philippe grinned at her, but Nekayah scowled in reply. “If you betray me--”
“I swear on my mother’s grave that no harm will come to you.”
Philippe kicked his heels into his stallion’s ribs and they took off through the field of yellow. Nekayah did not like riding horseback. Sure, she had rode horses before on occasion, but found their gate too jarring at higher speeds. Nekayah had to wrap her arms tightly around the young lord to keep from falling off, and dreaded whatever sense of satisfaction she was giving him. Pressing close against his back, Nekayah breathed in the lavender scent wafting from his clothes. She loved the smell of lavender.
The sun was reaching its apex by the time they arrived at a small abandoned farmstead. It sat atop a hill that overlooked the surrounding yellow and copper countryside. It was composed of a dilapidated farmhouse with a thatched roof cratered with holes, and a gimpy windmill missing one of its four blades. It creaked loathsomely every time there was a breeze strong enough to make it turn. The lament of a dying stag would have been more pleasurable to Nekayah’s ears.
Philippe dismounted and tied the horse to a post, then offered to help Nekayah come down. His good arm was stretched out to her again, but the Abyssinian was focused on the wounded appendage he let dangle limp at his side. A stream of blood trickled its way down his hand and dripped from his finger tips. He was panting through a forced yet charming smile, as if there was something to gain from his show of fortitude.
“We need to fix your arm,” Nekayah said. She slid off the horse and the two went inside the farmhouse.
It was a barren place inside, with straw strewn about the floor and clumped up in piles in the corner. A makeshift table and chairs were the only furnishings. A vase of long dead flowers atop the table were the only decorations. Cobwebs latticed the rafters above, their dusty strands twinkling in the sunlight that streamed through the decaying rooftop. Nekayah guided her patient to the nearest pile of straw and sat him down. This was going to be their home until dusk. With an angry lord roaming the road for vengeance, having every armed man his father could spare scouting the roads with him, Philippe warned that daylight was their biggest enemy. No argument came from Nekayah’s lips.
“I always used to come here as a kid,” Philippe said. “I pretended it was my own little kingdom that I had discovered and claimed for myself. I thought of myself as a king, although...” He gave Nekayah a look. “I never was able to find a queen.”
“How adorable,” Nekayah said with flat disinterest. “Show me your arm.”
Philippe extended his arm, but continued to talk. “Since most of my father inheritance and land will go to Romano, I decided to make this my own secret place. It was perfect to escape my brother’s taunting. He never followed me so deep into the back country. If there’s no pillow for his arse, it’s a place he wont go. I admit though, it’s been a while since I’ve maintained the place.”
Nekayah set her satchel down and began to unpack, taking out an eclectic collection of bottles, vials, herbs, and tools. She then drew her ivory dagger.
Philippe jumped to his feet and reached for his rapier. “Now hold on a moment!”
“I need to cut your sleeve off. It’s in the way.”
Philippe gave a nervous laugh and sat back down, but even with her reassurance, he kept a close eye on where that blade was going. In doing so he noticed something strange about the dagger; etched on the flat side of its ivory blade was a series of unreadable markings. Alien characters the likes of which he had never seen before in his studies of French, English or even Arabic.
“What language is that?” he asked.
“Not a language you know.”
Philippe countered her rebuff with another question. “Is it the language of your homeland?”
Nekayah shook her head, making her beads rattle. “No.”
“Then where does that language come from? I’ve buried myself in many books but never seen such a script.”
Nekayah dabbed away the excess blood with a white rag. His wound was thin and clean. It wouldn’t require stitches. “You haven’t been looking at the right books, my lord.”
“Could you please just answer my simple question?”
Nekayah dipped two fingers in a jar of thick green salve and rubbed it over the wound before it had a chance to start bleeding out again. “It comes from the stars.”
Philippe winced, sucking in air through clenched teeth. The salve stung sharply, but within seconds his pain started to give way to a soothing cool sensation and he sighed with relief. He then found the words to continue speaking. “I beg your pardon, my lady, but I find that a bit hard to believe.”
“I’m not asking you to believe. You can believe whatever you want.” Nekayah began to wrap the wound in bandages. She didn’t even bother to look up from her work. “But that does not change anything.”
Philippe’s stupid grin slowly faded and he stared at Nekayah with intent. “Are you really a witch?”
Nekayah cut the end her bandage roll and tied off the end. “That’s a dangerous word to use on another, but it’s not the first time people accused me as such.”
“How many people?”
Nekayah finally looked up and stared Philippe in the eye. “Many.”
Philippe rose, his face contorted in worry and confusion. It was the face Nekayah was waiting for. She had seen it numerous times across this land and others. In fact she could not remember speaking to anyone at length who didn’t make that face at least once. It was the face of someone’s expectations, their view of the world, cracking from the strain of the unknown invading their reality. It was in this face that Nekayah learned to view a person’s true character, but it was also why she usually chose to keep her conversations brief.
“But you’re…you are from a Christian kingdom,” Philippe said. “Do they not chastise such blasphemy where you’re from?”
“You hardly know what real blasphemy is.” Nekayah did not even look in Philippe’s direction. She instead began to put her vials and tools back in her bag. “Your arm will be fine now. You’re welcome.”
Philippe flexed his bandaged arm as best he could to test the Abyssinian’s work. Surprised that he didn’t flinch in pain, he flexed it a few more times wondering how such a marvel could be so. His face softened and his anxiety seemed to flutter away. Nekayah guessed the boy could not argue with results. He was a smart boy, she thought, or at least he was practical.
Philippe shook his head and laughed. “You have a talent for lowering high-born men to fools. It’s almost as if it was never cut at all. I owe you my thanks, not my indignation.”
Nekayah stood and grabbed the young lord’s arm, gently lowering it back to his side. “Don’t be a fool. The pain is gone but the wound will still take time to heal. Do not tear it any further.”
Philippe took advantage of their close proximity and with his good arm wrapped himself gently around his healer. He pressed her close against his chest and Nekayah once again smelled nothing but lavender. So close they were now that Philippe had to turn his head down slightly to gaze Nekayah eye to eye. Their breath gently brushed over each other’s faces. “You truly are a remarkable woman.”
Nekayah smirked. Clever, she thought, that he waited until her dagger was out of reach, lying neatly against her bag on the floor. There was some spice powder still on her belt, but the boy’s arm obstructed speedy access. Any sudden movement was out of the question, and yet she was not worried, and the thought of struggling free slipped her mind. As a lady traveling alone she was not unaccustomed to such advances from all manner of men, but for her own safety and lack of interest, she rarely followed through. “Indeed, I am. Perhaps I am too much for a boy like yourself.”
“Nonsense.” Philippe traced his index finger across the contours of Neyakah’s high cheekbones and full lips, but when his finger strayed too close to her mouth she bit him. He pulled back his hand quick. He had already been injured once today and was not in the mood have his blood drawn again.
“Careful, my lord,” Nekayah whispered. “You’re teetering on the edge of the unknown. It’s a dangerous place. If you venture any further and you might not return.”
The boy feigned a frown, pouting. “You perceive me to be inexperienced?” His frown faded fast as he brought his face closer to hers. “Trust me, my lady, I live for the unknown.”
Nekayah reached up and grabbed the back of Philippe’s head, running her fingers through his tight curls. “You may very well lose yourself in it.”
The hours passed, the sun continued its arc downward into that grassy horizon behind the farmhouse. No one came peeking through the broken windows to spy on the entwined bodies within, to hear the moaning tumult, or smell that potent mixture of lavender and sweat. Only the birds nesting in the narrow cracks of the ramshackle windmill bore witness to the goings on inside the farmhouse. The marathon was medley of positions and activities, some mundane, some exotic, and more than a few were quite daring. If the birds had a language of their own, the sights they saw would warrant the stuff of legends, vivid enough to be passed down from generation to generation. Sadly, reality being as it was, the novelty of what the birds saw did not leave a lasting impression, and what could have been preserved was lost forever in the passing of the hours. The sky shifted to a sharp tone of orange and the noise eventually ceased.
Nekayah, the first to regain feeling in her legs, stood up covered with straw and dirt sticking to her moistened skin. She took a rag from her satchel and began to wipe herself. By the time the young lord had the energy to awaken, he was met with the disappointing sight of a fully dressed Nekayah. He saw her putting a small vial of bile-colored medicine to her lips. She downed it quick with a pinched face. The taste was akin to a blend of earwax, copper, and seawater. It was small discomfort to endure though to spare herself from future...complications.
“You truly are a monster,” Philippe said. He groggily lurched himself upright. His body was slick with sweat and marked with red and purple bite marks. She had been mindful not to touch his arm much, but in the heat of things she still may have been a little too rough.
The Abyssinian shrugged. Either way, she thought, the boy was young enough to recover.
“I see you are still alive,” Nekayah said. “And you can still speak. For a moment I was...how would say...concerned.”
Philippe bit back a groan as he got to his feet. He had to stagger around the farmhouse to find his clothes; once fine garments now soiled and frayed from the chaos. Putting on those clothes made him look less like a noble and more like a vagabond. “You are indeed a remarkable woman. If you hadn’t stopped when you did, my mortal heart would have surely given out. You could kill a man this way!”
Nekayah let loose a dry chuckle.
Philippe, unsure of how to take her laugh, decided for once not to press the topic any further. “Anyway…we should be on the road soon. It’s almost night.”
The sound of hooves and dangling stirrup tackle sounded outside, making Nekayah turn her head towards the nearest window. Her heart felt as though it skipped a beat. It was hard to count the exact number of horses and men atop them as the final rays of the sunset merged them all in black silhouettes.
“We know you’re in there, brother!” Romano cried. “Come out and tell me where you’ve hidden that dark witch!”
“I grow tired of your brother,” Nekayah whispered.
“As do I,” the young lord said. Philippe joined Nekayah by the window, keeping himself hidden from the prying eyes of those outside. “Sometimes I think it’s a curse that made us family. I will distract him while you escape through a rear window.” Philippe sighed. “I was hoping to have a more pleasant farewell than this.”
Nekayah started towards the rear of the farmhouse, but stopped and faced Philippe. “And out of curiosity, what will happen to you?”
“He will shout at me, demand to know your whereabouts, and I will deny him. He will then probably beat me, as is usual when he gets mad.” Philippe scowled for the first time in Nekayah’s presence. “I know he is my brother, but God damn him, he has taken this too far. Go now before he gets too suspicious.”
“I thank you,” Nekayah said, kissing Philippe on the cheek. “You really are a good person.” With that, she turned and hurried to the back of the farmhouse and carefully vaulted through the glassless window.
As soon as her feet touched the ground outside, Nekayah heard Philippe starting to address his brother. The two voices escalated into full shouts that echoed across the empty countryside. So loud were the siblings that she almost didn’t hear the soft clopping of horse hooves approaching in the dark. There was little in terms of cover. If she ran, someone would surely see her. The night was clear and nothing but flat fields surrounded them in every direction.
The broken windmill was her only refuge. Nekayah raced towards the shadowed tower and ducked under the doorless archway into the hollow, dusty interior. She could hear the patrolling horseman circle around the windmill. Nekayah kept one hand over her mouth as she breathed slow shallow breaths. As long as the man was too lazy to get off his horse then she would be fine, and if he did dismount to investigate, well, Nekayah unsheathed her ivory dagger in preparation.
A visceral thud echoed in the darkness followed by Philippe crying in pain. The beating had begun. Nekayah clenched her jaw. Another blow cracked out into the night, ringing in the hollow walls of the gutted windmill. This time, though, Romano’s voice cried out. Whether it was out of spite for his brother or genuine sentiment for her, Nekayah was impressed with Philippe’s fortitude. Which boy would give in first?
The sound of a man’s feet hitting the dirt made her muscles tense. Philippe howled out again, but his cry was cut short by another thud, but this time Nekayah could hear the sound of wet blood splashing upon impact. Footsteps were coming straight for the door-less archway into the windmill. Before long she heard him step inside.
“What’s that noise…?” the horseman pondered aloud. There was nothing to be seen in the black darkness, but there was something to be heard. A low incomprehensible chanting that sounded ancient and unearthly, full of sounds completely inhuman. “Is that you, wench? We’ve been looking high and low for you.”
The man groped about blindly in the dark as the chanting grew louder. He couldn’t discern from which direction the noise was coming from. The noise grew louder and louder—so loud it made the man hold his head in writhing agony. He tried to speak again, but his thoughts couldn’t hold together long enough to utter a single word. He couldn’t even scream when he felt a cold, hard blade slide into his back.
He expected the cold, he had heard tales of death feeling as such, but it was sensation of being wrapped in tentacles that piqued his last thought. They never mentioned that.
Standing before a kneeling Philippe, teeth bared with rage, Romano had his fist raised ready to drive it home between the boy’s eyes. He had already gave his younger brother a bloodied nose and black eye. One more firm punch would knock him out cold. Yet something made him pause, something caught his eye. A harsh wind swept over the countryside. The windmill screeched its unholy cry as its broken arms turned. Philippe turned to see what the matter was.
Cloak fluttering, Nekayah strode gracefully towards the brutal scene like wraith on the wind. She approached with her arms out wide, holding her bloody dagger.
“So the witch has decided to show herself,” Romano said. “Excellent!” He drew his rapier from his belt and smirked.
“Nekayah!” Philippe tried to shout through a mouthful of blood, but choked on his words. “Run!” Philippe held his tongue silent, however, when he looked closely at Nekayah’s face. It was inscribed with markings, ones similar to those on her dagger. They were drawn in blood, pulsing faintly with light. Her eyes were different, too. They were now solid black.
Nekayah did not speak a word. She only raised her empty hand above her head. As soon as her arm extended a strong chill overwhelmed Philippe. He gasped as the blood in his veins turned to ice. He was not the only one who felt this way. The horses reared up in start, neighing and screaming. Some took off in a full gallop, carrying their terrified riders with them. The men left behind were quick to follow their steeds down the hill and into the night.
Romano laughed. “You cannot frighten me with your sorcerer’s tricks!” He cut his rapier menacingly in the air. “Black magic cannot stand up to hard steel!”
Nekayah, as if she had not even heard Romano’s threat, looked instead at Philippe. Her voice was lower now. “In this moment I could make you heir to all your father’s lands and wealth, if you so wished, and you would never have to worry about your brother again. What say you?”
Trembling like a leaf in a storm, Philippe had to muster the courage to shake his head. “No! Don’t do it!”
“Very well. I will spare him the worst of my punishment, but not all. You must look away!”
Philippe did as he was told while Romano charged at the woman, rapier poised to impale Nekayah’s heart. Yet the Abyssinian did not even blink. She brought her hand down and with it came a bolt of lightning that came not from any cloud, as the sky was clear, but from the stars themselves. The jagged white bolt cut the sky in half with roaring thunder, landing far on the horizon. For the briefest of seconds Romano thought he saw something descend with that lightning bolt. The flash lit up the deep violet sky and he saw it; humongous and shapeless, a true behemoth made of corded tendrils and gaping maws filled with teeth, writhing. It was the last thing Romano would ever see.
The young lord tripped in mid run, dropping his sword and landed face first, screaming into the red dirt. Philippe hurried over to examine what Nekayah had done to his brother.
“I can’t see!” Romano screamed, running his hands over his face. “I can’t see! Where is she?!”
“Did you use the powder again?” Philippe asked.
Nekayah shook her head, wiping the bloody marks off her face. “I made a simple exchange to end his cruelty. I spared his life for his eyes.”
Philippe looked and gasped. Romano’s eyes were indeed gone, leaving behind charred, smoldering sockets in their stead.
Nekayah approached Philippe. “You’re face…I can help you with that.” Nekayah reached out to touch the young man’s bruised and bloodied face, but the young man slapped her hand away.
“I’ll be fine!” Philippe barked.
Romano’s screams had lightened into muffled sobs. His voice had finally grown horse and his spittle started to froth in his dry mouth. With his fists he pounded the dirt in rage, scrapping his knuckles raw.
Philippe watched his pitiful sibling, then looked at Nekayah with regret. He swallowed hard before speaking. “I think you should leave.”
“I was just trying to help you…”
“Perhaps you helped too much!” Philippe’s voice shook as he spoke. “You may take my horse if you want, just leave!” Philippe’s chestnut stallion, still tied to the post near the farmhouse, grunted trying to pull itself free from its bindings.
Nekayah stepped towards the horse as if she had no words left to say to Philippe, but stopped to face the young man one more time. “I hoped you would be different.”
Philippe didn’t reply. He didn’t say a word. He just stared at the sorceress, his body shivering. The night air was cold, and not a cricket chirped in the dead silence. The Abyssinian approached the horse, reaching out to try and calm the terrified beast. It whinnied and thrashed its head about, but with a touch of Nekayah’s hand on its soft pink nose, it quieted and lowered its head. She undid the ties binding it to the post, put her foot in the stirrup and pushed herself onto the horses back. She stroked the horse’s muscular neck and gently nudged her heels into the beast’s flanks. It started down the hill in a comfortable trot, and Nekayah abandoned the young lords under the gaze of those watchful stars.