Emil sat outside the gate to his family’s yard, playing with a small boat made of tree bark. He had tried to carve it himself, but his hands couldn’t handle the sharp knife so his older brother had taken both objects from him and finished carving the boat for him. The result had been much better and now Emil sat by the gatepost holding the boat up to his cheek. It felt cool and smooth on his skin.
A sound from the road made him look up. Someone was coming. This someone was walking alone. The person’s footfalls weren’t heavy, but it was the dry season and dust flew into the air, almost masking whoever it was from Emil’s sight. Not until the person was very close to Emil and his gate, did he see that it was a young woman. He thought she was very pretty. Her long hair fell down her shoulders and caught the sunlight, almost dazzling his eyes.
”Hello. Who are you? Stay and talk to me.”
The young woman smiled and actually stopped for a moment.
”I can’t stay for long. Is there any water nearby? I’m quite thirsty.”
Emil got up and ran to the well. He wasn’t allowed to pull up water on his own, but he knew how to do it. His older brother had done it so many times and his parents too. He held out the bucket to the visitor and she poured some of the water into a cup she had somehow produced. She drank the cool sparkling water and smiled her thanks to the little boy.
Encouraged by this, he ran off to bring her a few apples. Again, he wasn’t allowed to take more than one apple a day, but this was for the visitor and he was sure his family would understand.
The young woman put most of the apples into her pack, but bit into one of them. She must have been hungry too, judging by the speed with which she devoured the fruit.
”Now, please stay and talk to me for a while.”
”I can’t. I have a very long way to go, to somewhere dangerous.”
”Can I come too? Will we be back here before evening?”
She smiled at him again, then shook her head.
”No, I’m sorry. It would be too far for you to walk. Stay here. I’ll be back soon.”
She bent over and ruffled his hair, then on an impulse pressed her lips to his cheek. He felt a sensation of burning or extreme cold and touched his fingers to the spot. Yet he could feel nothing there. No cut or scratch or other wound. It wasn’t painful, just – odd.
The young woman straightened up and began walking away.
”Bye, look after yourself.”
”Bye. Come back soon.”
He waved at her receding figure and stayed in his spot until she was long gone. Not once did she turn and look at him.
When the sun was setting, and his mother was calling him, Emil finally opened the gate and went inside. The memory of the beautiful young woman was burned into his mind. He knew he would never forget her.
She had promised she would be back soon, so for months afterwards, he faithfully waited by the gate, straining his eyes, searching for her. But she never came. The years went by and there was still no sign of her. He had heard about people like her – warriors – and now that he was older, he realized that she was a witch too. She had been on her way to the war. It took him many years to understand quite what the war was, but by then, he had made up his mind. If she didn’t come to him, he would come to her and the war. It wasn’t unusual. Many young boys caught the fever and went off to war. Not many returned home.
One day many years after the meeting by the roadside, the not quite so young warrior witch sank down on a chair by the bar. She was exhausted. Her entire body ached. They had been marching for days with little food and drink. After their last battle, they had taken many losses, but this town was in the safe zone. They could relax and recuperate. Since she was better at healing than killing, she had healed her own wounds and was only tired, not injured. All she needed was something to drink, maybe a little food and then sleep for a week. Of course, the commander of the warrior witches would never let them rest for that long. They were regrouping a few miles away. Time to hit the enemy again.
It had been such a long time since she saw the point of the war or why defeating the enemy was their goal, that she didn’t much care. The loot wasn’t that valuable and the riches she had thought to bring home to her family were nothing like what she had expected. She had signed up for a tour of duty of one year, then another. That was almost ten years ago. No one remembered how long they were in for now. She could leave with only what she’d brought with her – her powers – and what little she still had in her pockets and some day soon, she would. But she was going to fight one more battle, see this through to some more satisfying end.
The door opened and a group of male warriors walked in. They were just
ordinary warriors, no magic powers there. The warrior mages were akin to clerics or monks and lived in celibacy, didn’t drink and certainly didn’t come to common bars like this one. Warrior witches could do as they pleased as long as they heeded their commander’s call to arms in the morning.
One of them was no more than a boy, maybe eighteen at the most. Something about him caught her eye. She barely had to call on her powers to be able to tell that this was the little boy she had once encountered along the road at the very beginning of her time as a warrior. When she had been walking away from home, quite confidently. That was a very long time ago. By now she was disillusioned and worn down by the constant fighting. She had never been any good at fighting but she had thought that three witches in one home was one too many. So she had stumbled across this idea, she wasn’t quite sure how anymore, and rushed off to war, despite her mother’s warnings.
That little boy – he was now almost grown up. Still very pretty but the warriors he was serving – it was obvious that he was just a servant – had treated him badly, but there was still something left of the innocence that had touched her so all those years ago. It hurt to see him so worn down by his chores and the ill treatment.
The boy looked up and caught her gaze, perhaps sensing her scrutiny, and there it was, her own mark. She was wondering how much if at all, it had protected him from harm. There was another mark, far less permanent, but also far more obvious – someone had hit him across the face. The ugly red mark caught her attention and the anger made her rouse herself from her stupor. She hadn’t marked him all those years ago, to see him used like this by savage, brutal warriors. Someone had to save him and since no one else would bother, it had to be her.
She got up and straightened out her gown and looked for the one in command. It was easy to tell which one it was. Perhaps he was no more stupid or brutal than the others, but his cocky self confidence made it clear he was in command, as if that was an achievement among such brutes. Despite that, there was a sort of savage attraction there. A primitive handsomeness that would soon fade.
”Excuse me. That servant of yours – I could use one like that. How much?”
No need to prolong this unnecessarily. Best to cut to the chase and get it over with.
A cunning look flew over his face and a predatory smile spread across his lips. She recognized that look. Ten years ago it might have scared her. Today, she almost laughed. He might think he could get the better of her, but there was nothing to fear here.
”Save your gold. How would you feel about a trade? One night with me and the boy is yours.”
She studied him closely. Unlike his men, he was reasonably clean. As clean as she was anyway. And like she had noted earlier, not too unattractive, if you liked that primitive look. She could do this. It might even be fun. Might be just what she needed to break herself out of the despondency she knew had gripped her for a long time.
She smiled, then nodded.
”Why not? Just remember what they say – spite a warrior witch and live to regret it. You will not disappoint me – and – if you’re thinking that by accident you might – cause me harm – think again. I wear protective spells that will kill you instantly. Even if I should die, you will die too. Are we clear?”
His smile lost some of its smugness, but he still thought he could pull this off. Naturally, she would not harm him for failing to live up to her expectations, but she had seen the cruelty in his smile and knew he had planned on using force.
”Very clear. When -?”
”This evening. Let me finish my drink. Make some arrangements. You will come to my lodgings.”
Always choose your own battleground, that was something she had learned early on. Not that this one had any powers that would help him even on his home turf. She just couldn’t face the filth and squalor that most warriors lived in. Even her lodgings were poor and cramped, but at least they were clean.
She finished her drink and forced down the dry piece of bread the landlady had served her. The soup was just too – unappetizing. She went to talk to the boy.
”Do you remember me?”
His face lit up, a vague look on his face, as if he wasn’t quite sure – but was hoping –
”Are you -”
”We met a long time ago, by the side of the road. You gave me water and a few apples.”
”It is you. You never came back.”
”I know. The war – dragged on. And you were supposed to stay and be safe. Yet here we both are. Listen, are you happy among the warriors?”
His eyes lost their sparkle and he looked away. She hadn’t expected any enthusiasm and this was proof enough.
”You don’t have to stay with them.”
”No one else would take me.”
”I see. Would you like to come with me?”
”Yes, but how -”
”Never mind. Stay here. Wait for me. I’ll make arrangements, then I’ll be back for you.”
He nodded solemnly and settle down to wait. She ordered food and drink for him. It was time she went to meet his commander, though the pathetic man wasn’t worthy of the rank.
He was waiting for her outside the lodgings of the warrior witches, still cocky and very sure of himself. Come morning, he would have lost some of his superiority.
She let him in, then removed her outer garments and lay down on the bed. He pounced on her with a total lack of finesse. She grabbed him and pinned his arms by his side.
”That was not a good start. I really hope you can do better – ”
She watched his face lose some of its irritating smugness and he tried again, less crudely. It was a long night, but eventually, the sun began to rise. She had fulfilled her bargain. At first she thought the other warrior would try to trick her, but he appeared to have lost his taste for the game, just looked tired and fed up with her. When she conjured up a contract, he didn’t object to signing. She signed it too and he went on his way, seemingly as relieved as she was, that the night was over.
When she returned to the bar, the boy was asleep by the fireplace. She woke him and took him to a house nearby where she had seen a sign about a room to let. It was a tiny one, up by the rafters but relatively clean and the price didn’t put too much of a dent in her modest savings.
That was the easy part, now she needed to defend her action before her commander. A warrior witch wasn’t allowed to have servants. She might be able to explain him away as a concubine, but camp followers weren’t encouraged.
Half an hour later, she was standing in the dusty road, dismissed and stripped of her rank. Her commander hadn’t accepted her explanation and had just sent her on her way. She was stunned but found that she wasn’t disappointed. In fact, she wasn’t sorry at all. Though she had intended to stay a little longer, she was ready to go.
She returned to the room she had rented for the boy and told him of the change of plans. He must have wanted to train as a warrior, but now – she could think of nothing else but to return home. Maybe it was time. What had she gained in all these years of relentless fighting? Marching in rain and snow and dazzling sunlight, coughing up dust from the roads. Casting spells to do harm, when all she really wanted to do was run, even hide. Healing was better, but so many were beyond any help she could give, by the time she got to them. The faces of the other warriors blended into one. They looked just the same as anyone else. Why were they still fighting?
She used the rest of the day to buy supplies for the long walk home, then spent the night with the boy in the rented room. In the morning, they started following the long, winding road towards home.
Emil was smiling. The red mark on his cheekbone was already healing. She hadn’t come back for him, but she had found him all the same – or he had found her. That was really all he had ever wanted. The witch’s mark she had left on his cheek, had protected him and she had come through the war safe, if not unchanged. He had never become a warrior, but all he had really wanted was to find her. Life with the warriors hadn’t really given him anything, but at least they were now together. He was happy to return home. As far as they were concerned, the war was over.