The Witch of Castile

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Chapter 9: Ras Dashen

By the time they reached the end of the wheat field, the sun was already raising its golden crown over the eastern horizon. Weary from endless trekking, they dared not stop lest some scout from the village caught up with them. They trudged up a grassy hill to survey the land and orient themselves, since neither Nekayah nor Diego had any idea where they truly were. The Abyssinian used the sun, the roads, and many other little clues to map out the immediate landscape. Sofia’s village was a smoking dot in the distance to the west. The road she took to get there, a sandy vein stretching across the distance, was barely noticeable behind the cloud of smoke.

“I know where to go,” Nekayah said, turning north. “But we should keep off the road for a while.”

“I wouldn’t disagree,” Diego said. “But that being said, I have no provisions, and living off the land is not something I was really taught how to do.”

Nekayah reached into her satchel and tossed at half-eaten sweet bun to Diego. It just didn’t taste quite the same to her anymore.

“This is really good,” Diego said, wolfing it down.

“Yeah, I know.” Nekayah’s voice hung low and listless.

Diego couldn’t help but notice her odd tone. “What were you doing in that village anyway?”

“Healing a sick girl.”

“Ah.” Diego licked his fingers for the last few flaky crumbs. “The freckled girl with the dark hair you were with?”

Nekayah sighed. “Yeah, that one.”

“She looked healthy running away as quick as she did. You must have done a good job.”

Nekayah raised her voice. “Are you trying to make me angry?”

Diego looked taken aback by her outburst. “No…I’m sorry.”

Nekayah composed herself. It wasn’t his fault. He didn’t know. He didn’t know her how she knew her. “How long were you in that town?”

“I was in that town for a few days, staying at the inn. I had been following the rumors of the Moorish princess roaming the countryside.”

Nekayah arched an eyebrow with incredulity. “Princess?”

Diego laughed. “A bit of an exaggeration, maybe.”

“Hmph. By who, I wonder.”

“Anyway, when I got to that dusty village I heard they were preparing to burn a witch. You have no idea how relieved I was when I learned it wasn’t you.”

“Why didn’t you come to me?”

Diego shrugged. “By the time I knew you where staying with the baker, you’d already left.”

“But you stayed in the village?”

“I figured I’d see what the festival was about.” He blinked and realized what he’d just said. “Not the burning. The food and drink, I mean.” He paused, waiting to see if Nekayah understood. The woman just looked at him, waiting. Diego cleared his throat and continued. “Well, turned out that fortune was with me. When things got weird, that’s when I saw you.”

“I see.” She breathed deep, thinking about how everyone had been spared by just a bit of random luck. “Diego, let’s forget all about that loathsome place.”

The stupid boy smiled, nodding. “Already did.”

They trudged down the north side of the hill and pushed forward into the brush. For Nekayah it was not the first time she had to live in the wilds. There were times where she’d go weeks without visiting a town. Often she’d use that time to collect herbs, practice her spells on rabbits and deer, and sleep without worry of being seized in the night. Her mood lifted, returning to as close as normal as she was used to. In the wilderness she was calm, herself, and unafraid. She belonged out here.

“I’m sure there’s food around here,” Nekayah said.

“What about water? We’re almost out, aren’t we?”

“I think I saw a stream to the north.” Nekayah lied. She had seen nothing of the sort, but they had little choice in their heading. North was Jarangosa, waiting for her patiently. She had wasted too much time and she wasn’t going to waste anymore hiking in circles for a stream. They’d have to ration what little water remained until they found a spring.

The further they walked the thicker the brush got. Bugs flew out from under their feet with every step, buzzing up past their face. Nekayah paid them no mind, but Diego waved his hands about whenever one came too close, spitting and patting his face. Nekayah chuckled. What a mighty adventurer!

“Are you laughing at me?” he asked.

Nekayah shook her head and looked over her shoulder at him. “Of course not.”

“Good,” Diego said, his voice growing frustrated. A tree branch brushed past his face and he yelped. “Ah! Curse these trees!”

“Quiet.” Nekayah tried to keep her laughter under control, but the urge was too great. She put a hand over her mouth to stifle the laughs that slipped out.

Diego swatted the branch away. “You are laughing at me!”

“My apologies. I don’t want to incur the wrath of the Fox of Toledo!” Her voice was heavy with mockery and she watched the young man groan, hair full of leaves and twigs.

A rumbling growl drummed in the sky overhead. Through the canopy of leaves and branches they saw the sky above them was growing dark with thick gray clouds. A breeze blew in with them, smelling earthy and damp.

“We should find shelter.”

Fortune favored them and they found an alcove under the roots of a large elm tree and with a little digging, it became large enough for the two of them to sit under with room to spare. It did not take long for the rain to start, tapping gently on the leaves at first, growing in intensity until it started beating down like pebbles.

As Nekayah pushed dirt and twigs up to the entrance of their hovel to prevent them from being flooded out, she noticed Diego staring at her. His eyes weren’t focused on her face though, but rather her shoulder. For the first time since last night she remembered she’d been stabbed, and looked at the frayed hole in her dress with mild surprise. Underneath there was a barely visible scar.

“I’m fine,” Nekayah said, covering the hole with her hand. “Don’t worry.”

“Was that the same magic you used on me?” Diego asked.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

Despite Nekayah’s wishes, Diego pushed the topic. Stuck in a hole in the ground, all they could do was talk. “I don’t claim to be a bright man, but I want explanations. Your magic, what is it? I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Few have. It’s something best kept to the shadows of the world.”

“What brings a sorceress like you out of the shadows then?”

“Are you, how do you say, a pious man, Diego?” Nekayah waved her question away the moment she finished asking. “Nevermind. Of course you’re not. You’re with me after all.”

Diego looked confused and slightly offended, pursing his brow. “What are you getting at?”

“There are beings out there,” Nekayah began, pointing up, “beyond the stars you see at night, hiding in that black void. It’s hard for me to describe them in your language. They’re gods, but not like how you imagine them. They’re watching. Waiting.”

Diego looked up, staring past the dirt and roots, past the leaves, and past the clouds. “Gods beyond the stars…? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“They go by names you’ve never heard of, and most parts of the world have forgotten all about them, if they ever knew them at all. But some still know their names.”

Diego returned his gaze back to Nekayah. “And you know their names?”

“Only one for sure, and I dare not speak her true name. I simply call her The Mother Beyond the Veil.”

Nekayah remembered being in a cavern deep under the peak of Ras Dashen at the heart of the Simien Mountains at the core of Abyssinia. She was only a girl then, frail and small, but already she had learned so much about the workings of the universe—the cosmic threads that held existence together, and the gods that pulled those threads like puppet strings for the sake of their own distorted schemes. To learn how to have the gods pull those strings in her favor, well, what more could a mortal child ask for?

The cavern was huge and barren with only the bare amenities provided. Sleeping sacks, a small table, two stools, and a collection of tomes. In order to read the tomes, though, Nekayah would have to crawl out into the daylight. It was never bright enough to read inside. The walls of the cave were a glossy black stone perpetually slick with mildew, and even the torches that lit the place suffocated in the choking darkness. But Nekayah was reared not to fear darkness. In darkness waited the deepest truths, the truths most were too afraid to glimpse.

Before her stood the statue of the Mother Beyond the Veil, the idol of her master. Her image was not human, nor was it that of any animal. It was nothing familiar to the eyes of mortal men. A column with the impression of tentacles carved all around it, writhing and coiling. Even though it was made of stone, it looked as though the statue would come to life at any moment and lash out, whipping her to shreds.

In the gaps between tentacles there were mouths and eyes. It was impossible to discern which feature was more disturbing to look at, but she had to look at all of them. Everyday she stared at that visage of madness so that her mind could acclimate to what her master described was the true nature of the universe—unforgiving, thoughtless chaos.

However, on that fateful day so many years ago, it was Nekayah’s turn to ascend to the level of her master and form a pact with the Mother Beyond the Veil. A part of her otherworldly power would flow into the Abyssinian, and if she was strong, she’d control it like her master did, and serve her as her disciple. If she was weak, she’d be consumed by the power and die, becoming a sacrifice.

Nekayah knew she was strong. She survived the destruction of her village. She took beatings from her master without shedding a single tear, learning to endure pain. She’d studied the spells in the old tome, practicing them to a point where she could scrawl them as fast as her master could. She even fasted for weeks at a time to test her resolve.

She was ready.

Nekayah took the ivory dagger her master had given her and slit her palms open, letting the blood run freely. She smeared her essence on the base of the statue, embracing it, shouting the chant that invoked her presence. She rubbed her blood over the sigil carved on the bottom of the statue, a dreadful, hypnotic spiral. That’s when she heard her mother speak for the first time.

She did not speak in words, but with torrents of the rage, hunger, and visions—visions of the past, the present and future. Her soul felt like a leaf blown into an agonizing maelstrom of fire and ice and crushing oblivion. For just a moment she saw the vastness of creation. She saw stars, moons, and heavenly planets of every color. She saw how they were born, and how they would all one day die. She saw beings of immense power gliding through seas of aether, one such being none other than the Mother. Amidst all this, she saw how small she was; just an infinitely tiny thread in that beautiful tapestry of the cosmos. It terrified her, and it amazed her. In that moment there was no difference.

Then everything went black.

When she came to, Nekayah felt the arms of her master holding her tight. Blood dripped from the corners of her eyes, but she was alive. Somehow, though, she felt different. She had stared into the void and returned reborn. She passed the test.

“However, the test never truly ends,” Nekayah said, explaining her tale to Diego. “When I made that pact, I gave her a part of me, a part of my humanity. I want it back. Until then…I’m incomplete. Just something pretending to be human.”

“I see.” A rumble of the thunder drummed overhead.

“My covenant with her is a constant battle. If she wins, I become a slave to her power, and I may die in the process.”

Diego gulped. “Well, it looks like you’ve been winning that battle.”

Nekayah looked deep into Diego with that cold stare, with eyes that had seen the ends of the universe. “I cannot win a war against a god. No mortal can.”

Diego was silent and still. If the boy had any sense he would have fled off into the woods right then and there. Fear was the only appropriate response. “Lord have mercy…” he finally said with a trembling voice. “What awaits you in the north then?”

“A way for me to reclaim my humanity, sever the covenant and end this arduous struggle. There is a place I learned of after studying my master’s tome.” She took the leather-bound book from her satchel, opening its tinted pages. “A place where the veil between this world and the abyss is thin, thin enough for me to make direct contact with her. Once, there were many places like this, temples to the old gods, but everyone I searched for had long since been turned to dust and rubble. There’s is only one temple left. There I can revoke my connection to her. I can free myself in the ruins of Jarangosa.”

Diego blinked. Something other than fear finally registered in his brain. “But if you do that, will you not have her power anymore?”

“I no longer need her power. I’m not a desperate little girl anymore. I can’t even say I ever wanted it. The old man saved me when I was young, and I did as I was told to survive. I did not understand what I was doing.” She sighed and rubbed the scar on the corner of her chest. Sofia’s face flashed before her mind’s eye, as did the faces of Philippe and that poor servant boy. “It is more trouble than it’s worth. Even when I try to use it for benefit of others it just brings destruction.”

Diego shrugged. “I can’t say I really understand, but I’ve never seen someone suffer from having too much power.”

Nekayah glared at the young man again. “I’ve seen too many.”

Thunder clapped so loudly it shook the base of the tree. Diego shuddered, looking up as if expecting the elm to collapse on top of him. Droplets of cold sweat beaded on his forehead, betraying the anxiety swelling inside him. In truth though, Nekayah was surprised the boy hadn’t sprinted into the rain declaring her a consort of the devil. Despite being a blacksmith’s son, he had more courage than many high-born nobles she’d met.

Diego noticed her staring at him. “What?”

Nekayah shook her head. “Nothing.” Her fingers played with frayed threads along the edge of the hole in her dress. “I’m going to need to sew this hole up now. I trust you’ll give me some privacy and turn away.”

Nekayah briefly stepped out into the rain to slip off her dress. When she stepped back into the hovel she was half naked with only her underclothes to keep her modesty. Her dark body was slick and shining with rain. Diego struggled to respect her privacy, keeping his head turned away, but soon he couldn’t resist stealing not-so-subtle glances her way.

“I guess it’s too much to ask for,” Nekayah said, catching one of his glances. She pulled out a needle and thread from her satchel and got to work sewing up the hole in her dress, as the warm rain prattled on outside. A small part of her wished the rain would never stop. “Diego…thank you.”

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