Wayward Witch

I gently placed my hands upon the young man’s broken body, listening to his gurgles and knowing he was well beyond my abilities. Still, I had to try. I delved inside with my power and saw his heartbeat fading, the breath growing short and the light fading from within. Someone in the crowd started sobbing as I pulled my hands back. There was nothing I could do. No one could stop death, not even the strange woman from the hill.

A couple of soldiers escorted me from the tent as they laid a cloth over the young captain. Leila stood outside, waiting to defend me should they decide his death lay at my feet and not the enemy’s. Her services were not needed as the widow shrieked curses towards the sky instead.

“The cost of this war is growing far too high.”

“The cost of any war is too high. Sadly, it is one that many are apparently willing to pay.”

“They shouldn’t be. Over a hundred dead just this day, and that number would be higher if you hadn’t been here to help the others.”

I didn’t know how to respond to that. Ever since I was little, people had come to me for healing. My mother had been afraid that my talents would invite misfortune, but as my gifts had never brought harm, all accepted me warmly. I had learned quickly that not every wound could be healed and even though my talent grew as I did, I would never be able to stop the inevitable. To try would be madness.

“Death comes to us all eventually. Sickness, accidents, the passage of time. It does not matter. Everyone must step through that door eventually. Some just meet that fate trying to shove others through it.”

Leila stopped, grabbing my arm. “How can you say that! Are you so cold you do not mourn the great loss of these young lives?”

“Of course I mourn them! Leila, I have seen death far too much in my life already. It hurts to see so many go to it, but I know that nothing I can do could stop it. What would you have me do? I am not a warlord. I am not a Queen. I have no authority save that given to me by those seeking my help. My powers are limited. Finite. I am a healer, not a goddess. You yourself have explained that to others several times.”

“I know that, but there must be something.”

“There is. Beg the gods for peace and do your best to help in any way you can. It is what I do.”

***

That night, I lay awake in my tent and strained to hear the distant sounds of the camp. I would not admit it to Leila, but I almost found it impossible to sleep at night without them. How long had it been since the war began? Four years ago? Certainly no more than five. Each day was a routine, making it difficult to track. Wake to the dawn bells. Assist in the preparation of the field kits for the soldiers about to march. Prepare the tents for the wounded upon return. Heal those I could. Rest before it began again the next day. Reports said we were making progress, but with so little change I wondered how many of those reports were true. Was there something more I could do?

My mother had sent me with my brother, Sevren, when the lord’s conscription notice had been posted. “Do well and protect our lands. You have a special talent and that talent will save us,” my mother told me. Sevren died only a few months after finishing his training, an arrow through his neck. Mother asked me why I hadn’t been there to save him. Why hadn’t I protected him? “That was your duty. You have more power than any soldier! Surely you could have saved him!” I tried explaining, but she did not understand. She only knew that her son was gone, and her daughter with the Witch’s gift had failed to prevent it from happening.

“I am not a god. I cannot stop death,” I whispered to the air.

“Oh, but you can,” the air whispered back.

I started upright, clawing for the lantern I kept beside my bedroll. My hands knocked it over in my haste and the air laughed. A light blossomed above me, a soft pink orb glowing like a night-flower in moonlight. I pulled back, eyes wide. “What is this?”

“Oh come now, surely a little trick like this does not frighten you. You have the same gift as I.” An older man stood just within the entrance of my tent, hands forward and palms up, strange symbols circling his palms. I recognized the sensation of power in use, much like my own, but in a way I had never considered possible before. “Little Witch, has no one taught you what you are?”

“I… I do not know what you mean.”

“Your gift. The Witch’s Gift. The power is born in women only rarely. The ability to see the workings of the world and change them. Do you really not know your power?” The man laughed coldly, kneeling down beside me as I righted the lamp.

“I know my power,” I said as I pulled away. “I use it to heal–”

“I noticed. Such a simple use of such a strong talent. Why not use it instead to strike down the enemy before the harm is done?”

“My power does not work like that.”

“Wrong, little Witch. You do not know your power after all.”

I pursed my lips as I backed against the canvas. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”

“What are you doing here, little Witch?” He cocked his head, moving one of his palms. The orb drifted closer to my face.

“Leila! Leila!”

The man appeared startled for a moment as I called out for my friend, straining to hear movement. The look twisted into a mocking grin of shock. “Hear that? Neither do I. She won’t be joining us.” The man chuckled and lifted the other palm. I looked more closely at the symbols in his left and realized they were unrelated to those that created the orb now over his right. I could not hear the sounds of the camp.

“Who are you?” I asked again.

“I am Resif, a Wizard for the king’s army. We received news of a young Witch healing the soldiers in this encampment and have come to see your talents put to better use.”

“Which king?”

He pretended to sulk. “Oh, you smart little thing. You have seen through my ploy. Yes, I am a Wizard under the employ of King Dirksin of Elbar, your invader and soon to be Liege.”

I pushed back against the canvas siding, tearing through a patch at the bottom with a small prayer of thanks for my terrible sewing skills. A soft curse was muffled inside as the tent collapsed inward. I turned to run for Leila’s tent closer to camp and froze when my eyes saw only flame. A vast inferno covered where the camp should have stood. No cries came from within, just a terrible roaring of hungry flames. I didn’t hear the Wizard behind me.

***

I awoke to Leila patting my brow with a damp cloth. Her own face was dark with bruises. I reached up to touch her with my power and gasped at a sudden wrenching pain in my gut. Leila quickly pushed my hand away and stepped back. The pain slowly subsided. “He said I must let you try. I’m sorry, Seiyain.”

“What?” I wheezed, feeling nauseous. “Where are we? What…”

“The Wizard’s tower.”

“The… wi…” I remembered the older man. The cold laugh. The camp. “Leila. What happened? How long? What is going on? The camp–”

“–is gone. Three days past. Almost every soldier was killed. Some of the tradesman were spared. The Wizard knew us to be friends so I was taken alive as well.” She did not sound happy about that. “We were kept alive to be trained as servants. You and two others are to be trained by the Wizard in the use of your… gifts,” she said hesitantly. “He is letting me care for you in hope you will not be a problem student.”

“Leila–”

“–is here to help you learn your new role in the Elbar kingdom. You will train with the Wizard each day to develop your full potential. Any use of your power is expressly forbidden unless ordered by the Wizard. Disobedience will be punished as you have already experienced,” she said quickly in monotone recitation. “When your training is complete, you will be granted the position of Wizard’s Assistant and given the privilege of bringing our king’s light to the world.”

“Leila. I don’t—”

“Tonight you have been instructed to rest. The time given for your training is the dawn hour. I shall awaken you at fourth bell,” she continued, taking only a few moments to breathe. She kept glancing nervously towards a small sturdy grate in the opposite wall. A scuffling noise drew my attention. A guard? Was I in a dungeon? I reached out to touch Leila’s hand, but she snatched hers away. “The Wizard said he looks forward to,” she paused, “working you.”

I bristled at the omitted word. Leila gave me a strange, cold look. Fear and sympathy with a hint of disgust. My throat clenched as my hand stayed in the air, reaching for my friend. She knocked twice on the grate and a guard appeared, swinging the door open to let her out. Despite trying to keep him in sight, the height of the doorway forced her to crouch in an odd way allowing the guard a swat at Leila’s rear. She didn’t make a sound. What had they done to her? She raced away as soon as she was clear and the door slammed shut with a sharp twang. What would they do to me?

***

“Oh, little Witch. You are the slow learner, aren’t you.” My gut twisted as his words crossed the room, the pain making my eyes water. Leila swirled in my vision, doubled over in the same fashion. “Do you really enjoy bringing your friend so much pain?” The Wizard stood from his chair in the corner and nudged Leila over with his foot. She slumped, whimpering but not moving away. Doing so would only invite him to actually kick her. “The other two learned this lesson weeks ago. They are already on advanced castings. Why is it that you cannot manage even a simple light?”

The pain faded quickly as the Wizard released her punishment. Leila grunted with relief before quickly righting herself and moving back to her seated position at the Wizard’s feet. She didn’t even look at me. She hadn’t since the Wizard decided punishing her along with me would be more effective in my lessons. It hadn’t turned out that way. “I don’t understand what you want me to do. I told you—”

Leila screamed, twisting on the ground. I gaped, then quickly closed my mouth. I hadn’t been given permission to speak. Leila shuddered and struggled back to her position.

“Well, at least you seem to be learning something. Now, I will show you again. You will do as I do, or only she will pay now. Perhaps that will speed your education. Understand?”

I nodded. The Wizard lifted his hand and once again symbols spun above his palms as a ball of light grew in the middle. I watched, but sensed nothing other than his use of power. I did not know why the symbols appeared. No one ever mentioned seeing anything of the like when I healed. I tried to feel for the gift within me but it was like stepping for a stair where there was none. Again. No steps. Again. Leila whimpered. Again. Leila groaned. Again. She was screaming now. “Please, I am trying! My gift doesn’t work this way!”

The Wizard sighed, dismissing the light. Leila continued screaming. “Let us try another approach then.” My throat tightened as I watched Leila’s face shift to red.

“Please, stop.”

“I will when we have made progress,” he said with a dismissive gesture, turning his back on me. “You know you have the talent at least, but you refuse to acknowledge it in any way besides healing. Why? Have you never sensed the way the world works? Do you not feel the power in all things around you?”

“No.”

“No? Then how did you know you had the gift? How did you learn to heal without learning any other channels first?”

“I don’t know! Since I was small I could tell when something was wrong with a person. I could see what was wrong… as if it were a physical thing. I learned that when I touched them I could remove it.” She was still screaming. “Please, stop. You’re going to kill her!”

“Oh?” The Wizard turned back around. “You can tell?”

“She cannot breathe. The pain is too great! Please, go back to hurting me! Killing her will do no good!”

“It is doing a world of good. Can you see how I am giving her the pain?”

“What? I…” I could. “Yes.”

“Then stop me.”

“What?”

“If you wish to save your friend, stop me. Counter what I am doing. Perhaps this is how we shall finally get you to advance in your studies.”

I moved to kneel beside her, but the Wizard knocked me back with a blast of air. “Without touching. You can do this without touching.”

“I…” Leila’s screams had faded and she was beginning to turn purple. I closed my eyes and imagined touching her as I would if this were a normal healing. Nothing. I couldn’t see what I needed to remove. “Please…”

“No. You have to save her, she cannot save herself.”

I tried again. Nothing. I felt blind. Before I had always used the connection to the person to delve and see the problem. The feel of their heartbeat and warmth beneath my hands. That sense of life at my fingertips guided me. I held my hand towards Leila as if touching her, delving in to see what was wrong. Nothing. I tried reaching for the power I felt and delving into that. It was like walking into a wall. I pushed against it, trying to block it with my own, but my power just slid by. I started crying.

The power stopped and it took Leila a moment before she realized and gasped for breath. I kept my eyes closed and buried them in my hands.

“Disappointing. I felt your touch, but it was so weak. We shall have to try again. First though, I think a drink.” The Wizard left, speaking softly with the guard outside the door on his way. The door lock clattered before they moved off. I scrambled to Leila’s side.

“Leila—”

“Don’t,” she croaked, taking a few slow breaths as she moved away.

“I—”

“Don’t!” She shouted, glaring at me. There it was again, that look of fear, hatred and pity.

“Why?” The tightness in my throat returned.

“I should be asking that. I’ve seen the other lessons. The others are learning just fine! Why is it that you are the only one he needs to torture me for? Why is it that I had to be your friend? Why is it that I nearly died today, only a few feet away from one of the best healers in our province? Why is it that you did nothing to save me?”

“He wouldn’t let me! I tried—”

“Oh, you tried. Yes, I saw how you tried. I saw until I thought my eyes would leave my skull! You just sat there with your eyes closed and hand out as if waving farewell!”

“My gift—”

“You mean your curse! If it was a gift, we wouldn’t be here. If it was a gift, you’d be able to do what he asked of you. If it was a gift, you’d be able to use it to save us!” She sat up, her body shaking and nearly dropping her back down. “You wouldn’t save me.” Her voice quieted.

“Leila, I don’t know… you know me. You know if there was anything I could have done I would have!”

She turned away from me and we sat in silence for a long time. I hugged my knees close. What could I have done? Was there a way I could have saved her, stopped the torture sooner?

“The Wizard was wrong.”

“What?”

“You couldn’t have saved me. You can’t do anything. I always had to protect us. It’s my duty. I’m the one that protects us.” Her voice was cold.

“Leila, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” she whispered, “because the Wizard was wrong. I could have saved myself.” She looked at me again, but I didn’t understand what I saw in that gaze. It was different from before. No hate, no pity. “I still can.”

“Leila?”

Her hand blurred and pushed against my throat, forcing me back to the ground. My hands went to hers, my eyes wide as I looked up at the odd smile creeping across her face. “It will be okay, Sei. Shhh, this way I can save us both. He won’t hurt us anymore. The war will end for us and we can be free.”

I tried to call out, but her hand made it impossible to even swallow. Was there even anyone out there to call to? She stroked my hair as she shifted her weight, pushing down harder from her shoulder. “It’s always been my job to protect you, Sei. If you can’t protect yourself, then I must do so.”

I could feel her pulse against mine, slow and steady as mine began to race until both were all I could hear and feel. The look in her eyes never changed. I closed my eyes so I would not have to see.

Pulse. Pulse. Pulse. My heart and hers. I could see them. That little beating light I always saw when I healed. Mine was pulsing so hard. The little light that was me, the little light that was my power. My power. My light. I stoked it harder as I would someone else’s. I pushed it brighter and brighter. I pushed it against hers. Mine would be stronger. Mine would not go out. I focused entirely on that fact. I did not need to breath. I was that light and that light was strong. All I needed was that light.

Only my light.

Pulse.

Pulse.

Pulse.

The sound of the lock broke my focus and I realized Leila was no longer pushing me down. Someone was shouting something I didn’t understand. Leila? Why had she stopped? She was lying on the ground beside me, still looking at me. Her eyes were dark. Where was her light? It had been there against mine a moment ago…

The shouting grew louder and then I was against the wall, air pressing me back. A different light stood in front of me. No, not a light. I blinked, shaking my head a little. The Wizard. The Wizard had me against the wall. What was happening? What was he saying?

“… cannot save your friend but you can use your power to kill her?! Little Witch, just how am I supposed to train you properly when…”

His voice faded to a drone as I looked back down towards my friend’s light-less eyes. Killed? Killed whom? I hadn’t killed anyone. I healed people. Leila was hurt. That’s right. The Wizard had hurt her. I needed to help her. She needed light. He had a lot of light. He could spare his for her after all he had done to hurt her.

I narrowed my eyes and pushed against his light with my own. Leila would have it. The air holding me against the wall dissipated as the Wizard grunted, clutching his chest. He swept his hand out and symbols drawn of his light began to push towards me. I took them away. He gasped, trying again but I just kept balling them up. Spinning that light into a little pulsing flame. She would need every bit. He turned, stumbling for the door but I held tight and he fell.

“Leila needs help. You’re kind to help me,” I said softly, watching the pulse of his light fade as I took it away. He gurgled and kicked fitfully a few times. “I admit, I was a slow learner, but I understand what you were trying to teach me now. I can do more.” He stilled as I turned to pass the light to Leila.

“I am the best healer in the province. I can heal anything. This is what you meant, wasn’t it?” I asked Leila’s corpse as it began to thrash against the light I gave.

There, in the Wizard’s tower, I forgot the meaning of madness.

Kita Haliwell developed an addiction to the written word at an early age, spending most of her free time buried in books. Epic Fantasy is her biggest weakness, though she writes primarily Young Adult Fantasy and Mystery (when she isn’t distracted by something shiny or Disney).

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