The Witch Who Thinks She's A Warlock
Rosheen was exhausted, sweaty and ready for a beer when a messenger from King Torren came begging for urgent assistance with the promise of abundant silver. She and her griffin Anzu had spent a whole day tracking a lost wild simurgh that had been picking off sheep in a hamlet near Emerwick. The dog-headed, winged beast had given Rosheen and Anzu the run-around all night, but between them, they managed to subdue it, cage it and release it back into its valley home by noon.
Rosheen needed a bath, but Torren’s message was emphatic. Battle and bloodshed were inevitable and she had to come immediately. Even with Anzu’s powerful wings, the flight to Canwick Tor had taken most of the afternoon. Now the sun was well on its descent to the horizon and Torren’s men were flagging and close to defeat.
The battle had been raging all day. From their high vantage point on a winding path that led to the tor, Rosheen and Anzu found themselves watching the fighting below with creeping discomfort. King Torren’s men, at least five hundred of them, clunked around the mud in heavy, glinting armour, performing well-rehearsed and somewhat predictable manoeuvres. Their opponents were fewer in number but wore only leather jerkins and attacked like packs of wolves, unbound by any rules of war. They were fast, bewildering and merciless. Rosheen was reminded of childhood games back in Eru, when huge herds of village children would charge each other, or chase a ball across hills and fields with no sense of purpose other than pure joy. But this was no game. Torren’s men surged forwards, crashed into the immovable ranks of mercenaries, then were driven back again. Some floundered in the mud and were rewarded with an axe in the back or a broadsword biting into a limb. Cries of agony echoed around them, the voices of big men, professional soldiers, reduced to begging for death, weeping for their mothers. Children once more.
Apart from a few localised skirmishes, no blood had been spilled on Agrona’s green and lush meadows in centuries. A battle between two armies of this size was unreal. ‘There hasn’t been anything like this since the Mage Wars.’ Rosheen ran her hand through Anzu’s feathers, something she caught herself doing when anxious. Anzu purred at her touch. ‘It’s like something from the Chronicles,’ Rosheen said.
It’s a slaughter. Anzu’s thoughts came directly to Rosheen’s mind with a voice that only the mage could hear. Anzu was six years younger than Rosheen, but like all griffins, her voice had an aristocratic air. Who are these people? They look like mercenaries, but I’ve never seen paid men fight with such passion.
Rosheen winced as she watched one soldier, wounded in the back and bleeding badly, trying to crawl from the thick of the battlefield. He was spotted by one of the mercenaries who strolled over calmly and stuck her sword into his ribs. The wounded man jerked and a moment later, his final cry of agony drifted up to the tor.
Oh gods. Do we have to watch this, Rosh?
Anzu wasn’t squeamish, but this was unlike anything they had ever seen. Rosheen knew she shouldn’t be dwelling on the carnage, but for a moment she felt like she was glimpsing the future. Prophecy wasn’t one of her skills, but you didn’t need to be a seer to know that things wouldn’t be the same after this.
‘Uh, yes, sorry.’ She shook herself back to reality. ‘Let’s find Torren,’ she said.
A welcoming party of Torren’s Royal Guard met them further up the tor road. They greeted her with courteous bows, though a couple of the younger ones glanced in open curiosity at her brown skin. Country boys. She doubted if many of them had ever left Agrona, let alone seen anyone from Eru before.
The older officers eyed her with suspicion. Mid-ranking officials generally didn’t like mages, their authority threatened by a power they barely understood, and they had a singular disrespect for the younger, female kind. And so Rosheen – a woman in her thirty-third year, and a foreigner at that – embodied all their prejudices in one bundle.
A groom, more used to dealing with equine guests, reached for Anzu’s reins. Big mistake, Rosheen thought. The griffin cawed and reared up, towering over them as her front feet with their razor-sharp talons stamped the ground.
The welcoming party quickly backed away. Griffins were rare enough around here, but all children grew up knowing that a griffin’s talons could slash your belly open, and that their beaks could tear through flesh, snap bones and leave you with one limb less than when you first encountered it.
Do please remind them that I’m not some bloody horse. Anzu shook her wings and flexed her cat-like tail, filling the air around her with tiny hairs. One of the guards sneezed.
‘I think they got the message.’ Rosheen patted the mane around Anzu’s neck.
After some quick apologies, the guards swept Rosheen and Anzu through King Torren’s encampment to the edge of the tor, from where he was watching the battle unravel before him. Rosheen worked regularly with the old man, though she hadn’t seen him for a month or so. He had always looked ancient, but he was haggard and beaten now, too, bent over on his grey horse as the wind whipped his long white hair around his face. One of the guards announced their arrival and he shifted in his saddle to greet them.
‘We won’t be killing anyone, Torren,’ Rosheen said. ‘I want that clear from the start. You know that’s not—’
‘My dear girl, you know me better than that.’ Old King Torren usually welcomed them with niceties, good wishes and enquiries about the health of Rosheen’s family, but there was none of that today. ‘I simply need this to end quickly. These people are savages. Good day to you, Anzu,’ he added, and the griffin respectfully bowed her head in return.
‘Mercenaries?’ Rosheen asked.
‘Indeed, led by some chancer from the north. He’s been making his way south through some minor skirmishes and made camp on our border. We asked him to leave, he refused, and so we… Well, we appear to have started a small war.’
‘You’re more of a wine-and-feasts king than a warmonger, Torren.’ Rosheen liked the old king for his straightforward manner. He had little time for nonsense. He never bothered employing his own permanent mage, preferring to simply hire one, usually Rosheen, when necessary. ‘This isn’t like you at all.’
‘Quite, but one must resort to rattling the sabre every now and then. Trouble is, these buggers are fighting like there’s no tomorrow. I don’t know what he’s paying them, but they clearly think it’s worth it.’
‘Who is “he”?’
‘A warlord named Frang.’
‘Frang.’ Rosheen swished the name around in her mind for a moment. ‘Haldor Frang?’
‘You know him?’
‘He sent me word some weeks back that he wanted to hire me, but he wouldn’t say what for,’ Rosheen said. ‘It was all a bit vague and he had no one to vouch for him, so I passed.’
‘Hmm. He’s been buying allegiances along the way south.’
‘Glad I didn’t follow it up, then. He’s clearly off his chump to be taking on an army of the Newlands on their own turf.’
He’s not doing a bad job of kicking their arses, though, is he? Anzu added, and Rosheen was relieved that only she could hear the griffin’s voice in her mind.
‘What do you want us to do?’ Rosheen asked the king.
‘Make it bloody stop.’ Torren flourished a hand at the ongoing chaos. ‘Preferably in our favour.’
‘Our usual terms don’t cover this – we—’
‘Of course.’ Torren beckoned to his guards and two of them brought forward a small wooden chest. They swung it open to reveal that it was brimming with silver coins. ‘I trust this will be satisfactory?’
That’s more than we’ve earned in the last two years combined. Anzu sounded awestruck to Rosheen. He must be desperate. Think we can haggle for more?
‘I need to bring this Frang fellow to the table for parley,’ the old king said. ‘Can you do that?’
Rosheen looked out over the tor and across the field. With a roar, a few dozen of Torren’s men charged around the mercenaries’ flanks, trying to herd them like sheep. They were met immediately with fierce resistance, and soon the main bulk of them were split in two as the mercenaries cut a swathe through them.
If you think I’m going anywhere near that, you’ve got another thing coming, Anzu told her in no uncertain terms. All it takes is one opportunistic loon with a bow and I’m done for. I don’t care how much silver he’s got.
‘It’s okay, I know what to do,’ she replied. She turned to Torren. ‘We have a deal, good King Torren. Have your men fall back.’
The old man nodded. At his command, a horn sounded the retreat. Almost immediately, Torren’s men peeled away, rushing back to the high ground. The mercenaries gave chase.
Rosheen moved to the edge of the tor, the wind whipping her cloak around, and closed her eyes.
She found the mercenaries’ minds in the darkness. Bright little bubbles of energy. Rosheen knew that she wouldn’t be able to send them to sleep – they were far too frenzied for that to work effectively. She would have to use their aggression somehow.
Later, when accounts of the Battle of Canwick Tor were gathered, a clearer picture began to emerge of exactly what happened. Torren’s men said they saw all the mercenaries’ eyes briefly roll back white, and then they turned on one another without explanation.
Those mercenaries who survived and were willing to talk about it told of a momentary loss of their senses. What followed was utter confusion and dread as their comrades transformed into undead creatures, living corpses of the last person they had slain in combat. They could hear their commanders crying, ‘It’s a trick! Magic! Do not be deceived, stand down!’ But that’s easier said than done when you find the reanimated rotting carcass of an old enemy rushing towards you with an axe.
Torren’s men regrouped and attacked. They decimated the mercenary forces, sending them fleeing back across the field and over the River Can.
Rosheen opened her eyes, returning to the real world to find Torren clapping his hands delightedly. ‘Excellent, splendid. What did you do?’
She didn’t answer, but lowered herself to her knees and then rolled onto her back. Routine magic could make Rosheen feel a little light-headed sometimes, but she hadn’t stopped for almost two days now, what with hunting down a simurgh, flying halfway across the country and sending an entire army packing. As she recovered, other people’s voices sounded like they were in a bubble, and her mind was opening like the petals of a flower. She wanted to lie here and giggle like a child. She loved and hated this feeling. She was rudderless and vulnerable. It was known as the mage’s delirium. Thankfully, it never lasted long.
‘My dear Rosheen.’ Torren looked worried. ‘Are you hurt?’
Rosheen waved him away. ‘Just… just give me a moment.’
Anzu gently brushed her beak against Rosheen’s arm in sympathy. Rosheen ran her hands through the griffin’s mane as they both looked up into the twilight sky, where they found the two moons Greystone and Lapis. One large, dull, rocky and lifeless. The other tiny in comparison and a dazzling blue. The Mages’ Moon and the source of her power. Rosheen closed her eyes again, thankful as she basked in the strength it gave her.