Daggers gleam in the morning light. A layer of frost covers every blade. Giving each one a unique textured pattern that reflects onto the blades of grass that hang over them. A few patrolling guards pause to examine the remains of the fight the night before. All of them shake their heads and continue walking. It has been over twenty years since the old woman took in the two orphans from the streets outside the castle walls. The majority of the guards are used to their antics by now. Inside Keyne is diligently making breakfast for himself and the two other members of the house. He smiles as he hears Decker hiss as the old woman rubs balm into bruised skin and chastises him for provoking his brother so much. Decker’s mumbled response is lost to the pounding of a metal clad fist on the door. The three freeze and stare at the door with wide, confused eyes.
“Come quick the Ruling Lady has been killed!” a voice calls from the other side when no one answers the door. There is another beat as the words sink in. Movement explodes in the hut. The old woman banishes the fire that Keyne had been cooking with. The guard is already moving out the door, grabbing the closest weapon to the door. A chipped war axe that he keeps forgetting to hand off to the blacksmith for repairs. Decker is quick to follow, sprinting to catch up only half dressed. He bends down and gathers as many of his fallen daggers as he can as he runs. Without his coat he is unable to sheath them and is forced to carry the five blades out in the open. The old woman follows at a somewhat more sedate pace. She uses her staff to push away left behind daggers, mouth pressed into a thin line and face pale.
Is this why this place felt so wrong? Kareen thinks. He is staring at the still bleeding form of his mother sprawled across the floor between her bed and the door. Her right hand is stretching towards the door. Her green eyes still open, staring at everything and seeing nothing. The wound in her leg is small and would not have caused great alarm had it not been for the blood. The blood that would not stop even after her collapse. Kareen can feel that blood on his hands. Sticky and warm when he had first touched it it is now cool and flakey. The presence that has lived in his mind since his birth pulls at him. It wants to take over. Wants to remove him from this situation. And where is Audrey? The Witch has been with you. Kareen blinks. Teardrops fall onto his hands, smearing some of the blood there. The Young Lord turns his head mechanically to look up at his Protector standing beside him. She is in a similar state of shock. There is more blood on her than on Kareen, the boy notes. It has stained the white of her sleeping robes. Some is even splattered over her face. A single drop dangles precariously at the end of a strand of strawberry blonde hair. Kareen finds himself reaching up and brushing that strand behind his Protector’s hair. She doesn’t like it when it gets in her face. The Witch catches his hand as is retreats to his side. The young Lord blinks again in surprise at the action but does not pull away.
Kareen is aware of others entering the suite. Of his father’s anguished cry. Of the king shouting orders at guards. He barely registers the words ‘get the Witch.’ He finds them odd. He squeezes Audrey’s hand. The Witch is right here. Isn’t she? A hand on his shoulder attempts to pull him away from the doorway. He struggles against it. More tears fall from his eyes and a litany of ‘no’ spills from his chapped lips. Audrey snaps to attention at his sudden distress. Without releasing his hand she attacks his assailant. One of her rope darts imbeds itself into the hand. Its owner yells out and backs away. With barely a flick of her wrist the young Witch recalls her weapon. She looks around at the faces staring at her apprehensively now. Aquamarine eyes flicker to the guard who had touched her charge, fresh blood dripping from the back of his hand.
“Oh.” The exclamation causes all eyes to focus on Decker. The newly arrived guards are staring at the scene. Learning all they can in the short time before the old woman steps past them.
“You Lord please come with me,” she says. Kareen takes a hesitant step towards her. Then another. He stops when the grip his Protector has on his hand prevents him from going any further. He looks back at the younger Witch with a puzzled expression. He opens his mouth, prepared to call her name and ask what was going on, when the presence in his mind reminds him that they are not alone.
I want to go home.
We cannot. Not yet. But we can leave this place. Let me.
Kareen rubs the tears from his eyes with his free hand. Slowly hazel fades to black. He takes a moment to study the younger Witch. Now that he is in control he can feel the faint tremors running through her body. Can see her chest moving with rapid, shallow breaths. Her lips are just barely parted and the strand of hair Kareen had fixed earlier is once again dangling in front of her left eye, unfocused as it is. A sharp tug forces her attention on him. Aquamarine eyes sharpen and she straightens minutely.
“With me.” The order is in Kareen’s voice but Audrey picks up on the subtle undertone that is distinctly not the Young Lord. The young woman blinks a couple of times, gathering herself. She nods and this time when Kareen takes another step towards the old woman, she follows. Decker and Keyne fall into step behind them as the old woman leads the group back through the castle. No words are spoken the entire way but plenty is said. From the older Witch’s questioning signs to Audrey looking away and staring at the ground as they walk, and Kareen withdrawing into himself once again. Their hands remain tightly locked together. Keyne hums softly and nudges Decker, motioning towards the young Witch. Curious the shorter man leans forward to get a closer look. Focusing, he can see the undulations of the wires beneath the woman’s robe. He hops back and makes the sign for danger in her direction. Keyne repeats it and replies by placing his left fist beneath his right ribs, palm facing inwards, and flexing.
Decker agrees with a shuffled bow mid step and a shaky smile. He falters and skids to a stop. His normally mischief filled eyes have been darkened with fear. Keyne frowns at the sight and repeats the sign. He follows it up by pointing at their adoptive mother then poking the shorter male in the forehead. This startles a breathy laugh out of the other male. He flashes the other guard a bright smile. He brings both hands up and gently pushes Keyne’s cheeks together with his knuckles. The taller male furrows his brows and narrows his eyes at his companion. He is about to question the shorter man when he feels calloused thumbs rub in a synchronized circle. A bastardized version of a Witch sign.
Keyne snorts and chuffs his friend behind his ear. The pair hurries down the hall after the others. It does not take long to catch up, the pace they have kept slow and mournful. The Young Lord looks back at them when they come into view from around the corner. His gaze flickers between the guards. A question floats in his inky hazel eyes. He turns away before either guard has a chance to make it out. Though Keyne puzzles at the shift in color the younger male’s eyes undertook. He blinks up at the light shining through the windows high above them. It is enough to light the seldom used hallway and there is nothing around to cast a dark enough shadow. The taller guard shakes his head, muttering under his breath something about stress that causes Decker to laugh bitterly.
The old woman ushers the group into her shack. Her sharp words and frantic hand movements more than enough encouragement. Once everyone is inside she locks the door. Audrey leads Kareen to the nearest chair and pushes him to sit in it, taking up position behind him. Only now releasing his hand. She watches everyone else with defiance in her aquamarine eyes. After dropping his daggers on the table Decker retakes his position on a nearby chair, sitting facing the rest of the household with his arms crossed over the back and chin resting on his joined hands.
“Keyen why don’t you continue with breakfast,” the old woman requests in a gentle voice. The taller guard nods and steps past her to the stove. He pokes at the contents of the pan he had been cooking in earlier and, deeming them still good, places them above the flame the old woman produced.
“I am afraid I must open fresh wounds in order to learn about what happened,” the old woman prefaces. Audrey tenses. She grips the back of the chair tightly, knuckles turning white. For a long time no one says anything. The scraping of metal against metal and the occasional pop from the fire punctuate the silence. Decker shifts in his chair. Uncomfortable. A few of the bruises from the previous night stick out against the the otherwise pale skin of his back and sides. Kareen’s brows furrow in concern. He turns and looks up at Audrey pleadingly. The younger Witch blinks down at him, mild surprise reading on her face. Her head whips around the room, eyes scanning every surface. When they land on the container holding the balm the old woman was using to ease the bruises earlier she heaves a reluctant sigh. As she steps out from behind her charge’s chair the jar begins to float. Decker’s eyes are wide as the jar glides over to him, stopping just to the left of his face. The old woman’s face shifts, flickering to show surprise before she schools her features back to neutral. Audrey dips her fingers into the cool substance. She shudders at the feeling and scowls.
“Always hated this stuff,” she comments. Her voice is rough from screaming. Gray eyes flicker to meet curious brown. The taller guard shrugs and shakes his head. Rolling with it Decker shoots Audrey a grateful smile.
“It feels weird but it does the trick,” he agrees. He tenses at the first press of cold fingers against one of the lighter bruises decorating his upper rib cage. Kareen leans forward in his chair to inspect the bruises with worried hazel eyes.
“What happened to you?” he asks. Decker smiles sheepishly and gestures in the vague direction of Keyne.
“Sparred with that guy last night. He got a few lucky hits in,” he answers with a chuckle. Keyne scoffs. He hands the Young Lord a plate. Steam curls in the air in front of the younger male’s face, bringing with it the smell of freshly cooked eggs and familiar spices. Kareen murmurs his thanks and begins eating with enthusiasm. Audrey hums, her attention momentarily caught by the smell of food. Keyne places another plate on the corner of the table closest to her. She stares at the food longingly, eyes darting between it and the jar still suspended in the air. She snatches the jar and holds it carefully in the palm of the hand that was not being used to apply the salve. She focuses on a spoon on the other side of the room, aware of everyone’s eyes on her as she lifts it from the countertop and over to the plate of food. She scoops some of the eggs up and brings it to her mouth. She takes the bite, a pleasantly surprised noise escaping her.
“It’s good,” she comments with a faint blush. She ducks her head at Decker’s poorly muffled laughter and presses a particularly dark bruise on his shoulder blade. A dark smile spreads over her face at his pained hiss. Conversation stops as everyone settles down to eat. Audrey continues to administer the balm to Decker’s bruised back, pausing every so often to take another bite.
“I woke up when she started screaming,” Kareen says suddenly. Audrey freezes. The spoon clatters to the ground. Kareen stares at the back of his Protector’s head as he continues. His eyes a swirl of pained hazel and emotionless black.
“She was pounding the floor when I got there. There was so much blood everywhere. I tried to stop the bleeding but it was too late.” The younger Witch grits her teeth. Decker starts at the first drop of a tear hits his shoulder.
“I should have stopped it,” she bites out. “I was right there. I should have seen something. Heard something. I should have been faster.” The old woman stands up and walks over to the distressed Witch. She places a placating hand on the younger’s shoulder.
“Whoever did this is a professional.” The old woman tells her sternly.
“So am I!” the younger snarls. Her hands flex and the jar shatters. Keyne rushes forward at Decker’s startled shout but stops at the old woman’s raised hand. He stares in awe at the glass shards suspended in the air. Kept from harming anyone close enough by the Protector’s force of will. She levels a glare at the older Witch.
“My apologies,” she grinds out. She shakes the old woman’s hand off of her shoulder. She exhales and sweeps her arm out. The glass follows the movement and gathers in an empty bowl beside the stove. Kareen reaches out and takes his Protector’s hand in his once again.
“If you’ll excuse us,” he says quickly, “we just want to be alone for a while.” He leads the way out of the hut, ignoring his great grandmother yelling for him to stay. The door slams shut and the trio are left staring at it.
“I’m not entirely sure what just happened,” Decker admits. He stretches, flexing his muscles and wincing as he agitates still sore bruises. He stands and wanders into another room, returning shortly struggling to pull a shirt over his head. Keyne wanders over to stand beside the old woman.
“What should we do?” he asks. The old woman pinches the bridge of her nose.
“Leave them alone for a few hours. If we try anything right now they will just push us away and then we will never gain their trust,” she says. Keyne nods and looks over as Decker joins them. The guards exchange wry smiles and a shrug.
“I pity anyone who tries to do anything to those two right now,” the old woman comments with a dry laugh.
“Baba?” Decker asks, peering past Keyne’s shoulder.
“Force Witches, like the Young Lord’s Protector, are a rare breed and are considered weaker due to their lack of flexibility.” She summons a flame in front of her as she speaks. The flame twirls before disappearing in a puff of smoke. The smoke fades into a light fog which crystallizes into a shard of ice that falls into the old woman’s hand. The ice crumbles into sand that the old woman brushes off. “But that does not mean they are weak. Instead of controlling the raw elements that shape the world, force Witches have control over themselves and are capable of extending that control. As you saw.” Both guards glance over at the bowl filled with glass shards.
Kareen watches his Protector pace back and forth across the small garden. Her frustration is palpable. A field around her that pushes him away whenever he reaches out to her. She is trying to contain herself. Keeping herself from lashing out. It is out of fear of putting her charge in danger that she does this. Kareen snaps that he knows this. Understands the reasoning behind his Protector’s, his friend’s, self imposed isolation. It does not mean that he likes it, however. He sighs heavily and turns away from his agitated companion. Through the overlapping foliage of the garden he can see guards walking around. Three to a group with groups passing each other every couple of laps. They are on edge.
“Of course they are,” Kareen mutters irritably, “my mother was just killed inside their walls. It reflects badly on them.” They are lucky. Had you or your father been killed your mother would not hesitate to declare war. The presence in his mind stills. Kareen hums thoughtfully at the sudden silence. He can sense eyes on him and turns to meet Audrey’s aquamarine eyes regarding him. She is breathing heavily but other than that she appears much calmer than she had been mere moments ago.
“Ah Young Lord there you are!” a voice calls out. Two pairs of eyes flicker up to the guard picking his way through the garden. Audrey scowls. She folds her arms in front of herself, effectively covering her bare chest where her robe had slipped down. The guard beams at them for a second before he schools his features into professional neutrality.
“Your father is asking for you,” he says, snapping to attention.
“Tell him I’ll meet him later,” the younger male replies. The guard’s eyes narrow slightly. He shifts enough for the presence in Kareen’s mind to stir in apprehension.
“I’m afraid I must insist you come with me, Young Lord.” His voice is hard. Kareen steps back, shaking his head. The guard sighs while running a hand through his hair.
“I did not want it to come to this,” he mutters. With his other hand he tosses two darts at the pair in front of him. Kareen flinches backwards but feels nothing. Behind him he hears Audrey cry out in pain. He spins around to see the darts imbedded in the young Witch’s right shoulder. She wavers on her feet, her vision blurring. She watches with mounting fear as the guard walks up to her charge. She tries to move but finds she can’t. A poison, fast acting and most likely deadly, is running through her.
“No,” she breathes. Her eyes meet the Young Lord’s just before they slip shut. A hand wraps itself around Kareen’s upper arm and pulls. Darkness fills Kareen’s eyes. The guard’s hand erupts into flames. With a shout the guard releases the younger male.
“You’re a Witch too?” he asks through gritted teeth. A sinister smile slides on the boy’s face. A dark chuckle passes from between parted lips.
“Oh no. Nothing as mundane as that.” The flames around the guard’s arm die out. The two stare at each other only a few feet apart. The guard reaches down with his unharmed hand and draws his sword. A sharp whistle fills the air. Black eyes dart around, searching for source. The guard replies with a similar whistle, causing black eyes to focus back on him.
“You are not leaving this place alive,” the guard informs them before charging. The being controlling Kareen’s body scoffs. It raises its left hand and makes a motion like it is crushing something within its palm. The guard’s sword is at the Young Lord’s throat when a hand made of stone and vines rises from the ground beneath the gard. The guard barely has a chance to look into ink black eyes before he is crushed. Blood flies from cracks in the stone. It lands across the boy’s face. The being ignores it in favor of turning his attention to the young Witch laying still behind him. It can hear Kareen screaming for his friend. Begging for her life. The being kneels at her side. Reaching out it searches for any sign that she still lives.
“Hush,” the being says in a rough imitation of Kareen’s voice, “she yet breathes.” If only barely. A normal Witch would be dead.
“We cannot leave. You are not strong enough to carry her and she is defenseless without us,” the being states, “and there are more coming.” The wind picks up around them as the temperature drops. Black eyes scan the garden, pushing past the plant life. With every passing minute the being’s breaths become more and more labored. The Young Lord’s body unused to magic moving through it so liberally.
Still no movement other than what the being has created. A frown pulls at paling lips. They are waiting. For what, neither the being nor Kareen can agree. But they are waiting and it will not be long before the being will be forced to retreat and Kareen will be helpless. They know, the being realises suddenly. Either they figured it out or they have experience, it does not matter. The blackness wavers. Hazel peeking through for a split second. The wind begins to die down. Shadows start to creep from behind the trees. Jagged shards of ice fly towards them only to be knocked away with practiced movements. They came prepared to fight a Witch if the first man had failed. The being can feel its control slipping further.
“Am I going to die,” Kareen asks. His voice is small and directed at no one. As the shadows become more defined he can see their smiles, cruel and twisted. One shakes his head.
“No no we think we’ll keep you alive for a little while longer. Our Lord will be interested in you for something other than your inheritance.” The laugh that follows the statement sends a shiver down the Young Lord’s spine. One foot slides backwards. His heel hits his Protector and he looks down at the still unconscious Witch. The shadows have come into full view now. Two men and two women. All dressed in stone gray and black clothes. They do not appear to be armed but Kareen has no doubt that they are. One of the men follows his gaze.
“Sadly she will have to be dealt with,” he says. A bolt of fear shoots through the boy. A woman sighs regretfully.
“A pity too. She would have made for a fun fight.” The Witch in question coughs. Blood mixed with a green and black substance falls from her lips. It hits the ground and sizzles, a curl of steam rising from it. Her eyelids flutter and aquamarine eyes open to see unknown figures approaching her charge. Bile catches in her throat when she tries to speak and she ends up coughing. Her body spasming with the effort of expelling the poison for good. She struggles to her hand and knees and throws up.
“Ew!” The woman who had spoken earlier exclaims, taking a couple of steps back. Audrey scans the faces staring at her with a mix of disgust and irritation.
“Let’s get this over with. Kill her and grab the boy,” the other woman orders. She reaches out and grabs the Young Lord.
“No. Let me go!” Kareen’s eyes flicker black but all the being is able to produce is a flash of blinding light before the boy slumps. His body pushed nearly to exhaustion. Around her Audrey can hear their assailants cursing magic. She grimaces. Squeezing her eyes shut she rolls her shoulders, feeling her robe slip down again as the wires wrapped around her arms loosen. When she opens her eyes again all Audrey can make out is the vague outline of a person in front of her and another just to her left side. The blades of her rope darts slide into her palms. With a flick of her wrists the weapons are flying. The figure in front of her is pierced through the neck. Blood spews from the wound as the Witch recalls her weapon, tearing the flesh. There is a yell as the second person is struck in the arm. Audrey brings her second rope dart around their neck and pulls, bringing them to the ground. Their voice cuts out. Silenced.
“Release him,” Audrey orders. She is staring at the woman holding her charge. The wounds made by the darts are black and swollen. Blood mixed with poison runs in a thin line down only to be soaked into the robe, staining it further. The rope darts wait, coiled loosely like snakes on a tree branch. The other assailant reaches into his shirt and pulls out a pair of thin daggers. Even out of the corner of her eye Audrey can see the shine of a substance coating the blades. Her stomach lurches and she scowls at him. He smiles.
“Remember this stuff then?” he asks mockingly. The woman holding Kareen huffs and turns.
“I’ll leave her to you. I need to get the kid to the boss,” she states. She starts walking away. Dragging the Young Lord with her. Audrey takes a step in their direction but is stopped by a dagger flashing in front of her, narrowly missing her neck. The man tsks and waggles a finger.
“It’s just you and me. Win and you get to go after him,” he bends his knees and holds his daggers at the ready by his sides. The Witch glares at him. The muscles in her legs clench. She tosses her hair behind her shoulders and draws herself up. The man’s eyes follow the curve of her neck down until the robe prevents him from seeing anymore. Audrey grins. When she moves it is a blur. She leaps onto the stone fist created earlier, catching herself on the grooves that define the fingers. Her stomach roils and she spits blood onto the man. He looks up at her and makes a show of wiping the blood from his brow. He takes the time to inspect the substance now decorating his fingertips.
“This won’t last long,” he comments casually. He slashes at the woman’s bare feet, forcing her to dance away. She sends the rope darts out. One wraps around the man’s left forearm. The dagger angles itself and digs into the veins of his wrist. The man screams in pain even as he uses his other dagger to intercept the second rope dart. He tries to free his weapon a couple of times in a game of tug of war with the Witch. Every movement tugs at the dart in his wrist. Sending spikes of pain shooting up his arm. He releases the dagger and watches as it gets pulled back towards the woman. He sees the surprise in her face. Watches her whole arm stiffen, causing the rope dart to stop mid air. The dagger at its end held mere inches away from her leg. Her breath comes out in a shaky exhale. Sweat beads down her forehead. Plastering strands of her strawberry blonde hair to the sides of her face. She looks at the man below her. Trapped and nearly weaponless. She takes a step back. Wavering as a wave of nausea moves through her. With clenched teeth she reanimates her arm. Swinging wide the rope dart launches the dagger back to its owner. He dodges out of the way, twisting his body and angling it closer to the summoned stone. Brown eyes widen as a dagger embeds itself into his back. They barely have the time to look up at the Witch before the poison spreads. Mouth falling open, a green and black ooze sliding from the corners. Audrey watches in horror as the man’s eyes roll into the back of his head. His body spasms, still caught by her rope dart. She hears the tearing of bone and flesh. When the man finally falls limp she steps down from her perch. With shaky hands she unwinds her weapon from the man’s arm and the dagger in his back. She takes the dagger from his hand, holding it delicately. Looking back down at the corpse she sees the leather straps of the dagger’s sheath. Placing the dagger on the stone Audrey then bends down and wrestles the sheath free. She puts it on clumsily, fumbling with the buckles. The leather digs into her breast but she doesn’t care. She has something more important to deal with. Grabbing the dagger she shoves it in the sheath and starts running in the direction the woman had taken her charge.
The presence in Kareen’s mind paces. The Young Lord can feel it pressing against him. Testing his body. It wants to be free of this woman. It wants to free Kareen of her. The Witch is back there. Kareen tries to pull his arm away from the woman again. His shoulder aches from the repeated efforts. His throat sore from shouting for help. But the woman kept them to the shadow of the wall and every guard that passed looked at them and nodded. Traitors, the being had hissed. Kareen looks back towards the garden, the foliage now barely visible in the mass of gray stone that makes up the castle. A figure is moving towards them. He reaches a hand out, grasping at the air. A sharp pull on his arm diverts his attention back to the woman. She is glaring at him, mouth set in a scowl. Kareen meets her eyes. The person is getting closer. He grins. A rope dart whizzes between them. The woman turns her head and the second dart finds its mark in her left eye. Kareen yanks his arm away and rushes to Audrey’s side as the Witch recalls her weapons. He can hear her breathing heavily by his side. Reaching out he tugs on her robe, careful to keep his hand away from the moving wire retreating beneath.
“I need to get you someplace safe,” Audrey announces. The Young Lord barely has a chance to react as his Protector takes his hand again and begins to lead him away from the woman’s body. Kareen takes the time to look over his friend. The dagger’s sheath is barely covered by the robe after the woman had rearranged it. He spares a thought for how she got it but shoves it from his mind for the being to mull over later. Though the presence already has a few ideas. Kareen can feel his Protector's hand shaking in his own. Her eyes are squinted slightly and she keeps biting the inside of her lips. Small actions that betray just how in pain she is. The Witch stumbles, barely catching herself. Kareen waits with her as she sucks in a few deep, desperate breathes. She needs rest as much as he does.
Light gleams from carefully maintained blades turned over in calloused hands. Keyne watches discreetly from across the room as Decker goes over his myriad of daggers with an intensity the taller guard rarely sees. The shorter guard had taken over the table shortly after the other two had left. He disappeared into the room he shared with Keyne, only to appear moments later with a bolt of fine white cloth. He spread the cloth over the length of the table then proceeded to diligently line up his collection of daggers atop the cloth. All thirty-seven of them. Keyne recognizes one of the daggers, slightly longer than the rest and made entirely from bone instead of metal. A gift, left on the others bed for him to find. Decker had never said anything about it and never carries it with him but Keyne has caught him practicing with it alongside his rapier in the earliest hours of the morning.
One of Decker’s eyes twitches and his head shoots up. He glances around the room, briefly catching Keyne’s gaze. He smiles, right hand fluttering above the hilt of one of the thirty-three throwing daggers laid out in front of him. Keyne rolls his eyes but smiles back.
“I am not just going to sit on my ass while you risk your life doing who even knows what!” The shout from outside startles the guards. They turn their attention to the door, eyebrows furrowed.
“Well you don’t have to sit then! Just get in the damn hut!” The reply is from a female. The old woman moves to stand beside Keyne in front of the fireplace. She shakes her head when the tall guard motions towards the door.
“Not without you,” the first voice says, soft enough that it is barely heard through the wood of the door. Decker is standing now. Hands still hovering above his daggers while he waits for orders.
“Get in the Witch’s shack Kareen.” Silence follows the forced words.
“Come with me,” the first voice is low and angry, “Audrey.” There is a screech and the door swings open, hitting the wall with a crack. Decker scrambles to pick up a dagger as the pair stagger into the house. The door closes behind them without being touched. The Young Lord turns away from glaring at his Protector to lock eyes with his great grandmother.
“Help.” The younger Witch’s face softens. Her eyes flutter and she collapses. Kareen sinks to the ground beside her. Tears fill his eyes.