"I don't ever wanna talk that way again
I don't wanna know people like that anymore
As if there was some obligation
As if I owed you something
I don't wanna see the world that way anymore
I don't ever wanna feel that weak and insecure
As if you were my fucking pimp
As if I was your fucking whore . . ."
I will not speak about what the witch did; those memories are mine and I'll not share them. Much happened in those days and the years before that I will keep within myself until I go to be with my fathers. Enough to say that shame and I are old friends.
As I lay in that terrible woman's arms, I hardened my heart and fought back the urge to weep. I learned very young that tears profit one nothing; I may feel an ache in my heart that makes me mad with a longing for death, I may feel so filthy that I could swim across the wine-dark sea and not be washed clean, but I am a woman of the steppes and the Mirkwood and the Sunless Sea, and the daughters of Ermanerik are far too proud for their own good.
I waited for the witch to rise up and bid me help her with her work, which would mean I could soon take her blood to satisfy honor, but she did not. Her loathsome flesh pressed into mine as she held me tighter, and she began to snore. This nearly broke me; at once I wanted to curl up and weep like a little girl, and to scream my rage and kill the witch where she lay. But I held myself in check, rising slowly so as not to disturb her, and once risen I threw my sable robe over my nakedness and stepped into the morning sunlight. And there, alone but for my horse and dog, I did weep. It swept over me like a crashing breaker, all the memories of the witch and the things she'd done with me, and all of the others who'd done likewise, and my bowels felt like lead and my mouth filled with ashes. I stumbled over to the post where I'd picketed Greymane, and a dark thought flashed through my mind; in that moment, the ten feet of good tack rope in my saddlebags sounded very friendly indeed.
I would have done it, there and then, and nearly did. I thought on my god, on the mad and one-eyed Godan, who'd once died that same way, and as I stood before the witch's cottage, I sang his staves to myself:
"Once I hanged from the windswept branch,
For nine full nights I hanged there,
Spear-wounded, and to Godan given,
Myself, a gift unto myself,
On that tree whose roots no man can plumb;
No mead was I given, nor morsel of bread,
And down I looked into Hell;
I snatched up the runes, I took them screaming,
And backwards I fell from those depths."
My senses came back to me a moment, but only just, and I knew I was still fay; I reached into the saddlebags, but rather than the rope I took out my witch-bag, and from it one of my elf darts, and I let my robe fall open and I pressed the stone to my naked chest and cut a long line down to my belly. The sharp pain and the smell of blood brought me back to the waking world, and steeled me. I scooped up a handful of earth and rubbed it into the cut, ensuring that it would leave a ragged scar, another one to add to the tapestry of scars covering my body. And I closed my eyes and imagined the witch, and I imagined my long knife slipping into her throat, and her red blood flowing over me, and my pain was soothed a while.
I heard the witch stirring, and I composed myself, and fixed my cloak to cover my nakedness, and turned to face her coming. She shuffled out, unclothed, and laid a hateful hand upon me, and though I shuddered, I maintained myself and said sweetly, "Teacher, shall we brew my medicine? "
"Of course," she cooed, showing her gums. "Go on in and make us a fire in the hearth."
I nodded, and headed back into her bower. She slapped my arse as I went past, and it was a battle in my mind not to turn and strike her down where she stood. But I held myself as I walked proudly to her filthy hearth and struck a little fire there. She came in behind me, and touched me, and said, "Good. Now, go and get us some water."
I nodded again, and did not speak; the pain and fire in my heart mingled with excitement at being so close, so close to finishing this. I took up her great iron kettle and carried it out behind the hut and behind the kurgan to where a little stream flowed through the old oaks. Here was good clean water, and fine old trees, and I could all but feel the eyes of elves upon me as I stooped to fill the kettle. This, like the kurgan, was a holy place, and the witch defiled it with her hateful dwelling. But that would be fixed soon enough.
And I carried water back to the cottage, and hung the kettle over the fire, and the witch wrapped her hateful arms around me and touched my breasts, and she said, "Now, I will show you."
She rooted about the cottage until she came up with several vessels, two earthen jars and two wineskins. First, roots and flowers of red clover went into the kettle, and crushed thistle seeds, and then we waited for the water to warm up and the plants to steep. "These are woman-flowers," the witch said, taking up a great wooden spoon to stir up the kettle. "Freda blessed them, and their essence can help an old woman's body and soothe a young woman's heart."
I nodded, attentive, and repeated the names over and over in my mind: Red clover and milk thistle.
When the water had taken the fire and steamed a while, the witch bade me snuff the flames. "Next is mead," she said, "and good drink loathes heat; it will lose its virtue if it boils. Give it a good stir, dear."
I took up the spoon and stirred the drink while the witch opened the first skin and slowly poured good golden mead into the kettle. When it was all done, she nodded, satisfied, and tested the heat with her finger, and said, "It's nearly done, ready for the last bit. Be careful, dear; it smells."
She opened the second skin, and it did more than smell; the whole cottage filled with the reek of old, rendered piss, and I near to gagged.
"Piss, from a pregnant mare," she said. "This one is rich with the power of womanhood. This is the key; the other bits only help it to do its work.". She took up a wooden bowl and scooped a portion from the kettle, and handed it to me, and said, "Here you are, dear. It's ready."
It had been some weeks since I last took the medicine, and already I could feel my body craving it despite the reek. It tasted far more foul warm and fresh than it ever had out of a wineskin; I did not care. I finished my bowl, and I dipped another, and a third, and I felt its effects coursing through me all at once, feeding my need, and I howled my thanks at the gods and plunged my face into it. I emptied half the kettle.
The witch thought my desperation terribly funny and had broken into giggling. When I looked up and turned my face toward her, she saw in my eyes that she had made a mistake, and she grew silent.
I liked her silence better than her speech. I decided I wanted her silent while I went to my bloody work. I pulled my sword-arm back, and struck her hard in the throat with my middle knuckles, and her throat gave way, and she fell to the floor, her voice shattered, her breath leaving her. And so it was my turn to laugh. But even as I laughed, I looked into her eyes and I saw not fear, but hurt-the hurt of a lover betrayed, or of a parent scorned. And this drove my fury to burn brighter, for I had fantasized about showing her my grief ere she died, but in her foulness she would rob me of this as well; so, howling, I got up my knife and resolved to end things quickly, not savor them as I had hoped, though it was a vain hope; no matter how sweet to hear, no amount of the witch's keening could truly undo what she'd done, and I knew that.
My knife was good steel, heavy and sharp to carve flesh and break bone, and within minutes I held two treasures: In one hand, her heart; in the other, her head. I set the head up on a high shelf, for I would need it later, and I kicked open the door and called, "Fang! Come here, boy! I've a treat for you!"
My mongrel bayed like a devil as he came running, for the air was heavy with blood, and he ignored me, not bothering to ask permission to lay into the fodder I'd left upon the floor. And with my mind clouded by hate, I held the heart up to my lips, and it gave one last feeble beat as I set my teeth to it. I thought on our history, on the stories that came up from the Deep Mirkwood so many centuries ago, of the sons of Armann nailing Roman skulls and eating Roman hearts upon the roots of that people's Law Tree, and I smiled, a grim and hateful and red smile. I threw the rest of the organ to Fang, and I threw my head back and howled as a wolf howls, and Fang howled with me.
And I felt my blood rising, hot and angry and full of passion, and I felt a buzzing in the back of my head that I knew from childhood, a feeling I both loved and feared: The desire of the gods to speak to me.
The witch's hut was well stocked with herbs, and I found amongst her stock a pot of mushrooms, the red-capped ones that reek of cow-shit and ease the pain of a broken mind. I grabbed up a few, intending to prepare them and to bless them, but the buzzing in my head grew to a roar and I ate them as they were. And I found there a clump of hemp flowers and a brass censer, a relic of the Old People, strong with their magic, and I lit the hemp and breathed deeply of its thick, pungeant smoke. The noise in my head grew from the buzzing of bees to the roar of waves upon the shore, to the thunder of hooves across the steppe, and I howled, and Fang howled with me, and the little sunken cottage felt a cage, so I shed my robe and rushed out into the open air, and…
The kurgan, to my eyes, was ancient no longer; I saw it afresh, a pit in the earth lined with wood and stone, and no mound yet raised over it. A great king lay within the pit, and he had died hard and died well; his strong, hale body was rent with many cruel wounds, and his grey head was crowned in gore. Weapons lay by his side, a long heavy lance with a cruel head, an iron sword, an axe of bronze, and, in his hand, a broken bow. I heard the thunder of hooves, and I saw the king's riders carrying fire and charging widdershins around the tomb, bellowing their sorrow on great war-horns. They were a most striking race, the Old People; they were tall, tall as Goths, with wild golden hair, terrible grey eyes, and hides the color of copper or of blood. As the riders blew, a throng gathered, and slaves came to heap the mound over their king, and women tore at their hair and bitter wept, and a most uncanny woman took up a chant.
She was tall, like a queen, gaunt but with strong bones; and she was naked, with breasts that seemed to fit ill on her broad chest. Between her legs her prick swung, and behind it the scars where her stones had once been. All of the Old People looked up at her with awe and reverence, and she turned her face upwards toward the open sky and took up her song. I knew not the words, but I could feel its power deep in my bones, and they rattled as she sang the fallen king's soul off on his last great ride into the Eternal Blue Sky. And as she sang, the Old People and the fresh mound began to fade from my sight, until the whole vision was gone like smoke in the wind and I stood before the same old kurgan. A great many crows circled about it, and I was no longer alone.
I could feel the poison charging through my veins, could feel the smoke clouding my head, and I knew that I saw only dreams and ghosts; but they looked real. A gnarled and twisted shape of a man stood atop the kurgan; he was tall, too tall, all bundled up in rags beneath a wide hat so that I could see nothing of his face. He hobbled toward me, leaning upon an ashen staff, and I felt such terror that I wanted to fall upon my face and beg him to come no closer; I wanted to, but dared not. For I knew this man well, and I feared him and hated him just as I loved him with all of my heart.
As he drew near, the air grew cold, as cold as the open steppe in the grip of winter, and he reeked; he reeked of rot and decay, disease, the grave, and the iron stink of blood. He pulled away his cowl to reveal a face ruined by countless years; he grinned at me with a mouth of broken, green teeth, and he leered at me with a single, terrible blue eye; where the other should've been was a ragged hole that opened up into Nothing.
Godan, God of All Gods, the Terrible One, the Greybeard, the Wanderer, King of the Gallows, Lord of Ghosts, Godan the Wise, Godan the Mad, stretched out his hand toward me and flicked his wrist, and my legs failed under me and I fell upon my face. I tried to rise, but it was as though I'd been laid in bonds.
"This is how the world likes you best, Allie," the god taunted, "with your face in the dirt and your arse up in the air. It is tempting.". And he laughed at me.
How to speak of that voice? May you never hear Godan speak, for his voice is the grinding of steel on stone, the snapping of bone, the crack of thunder, howling wolves and hissing serpents, and when Godan speaks, crops fail and iron rusts.
"Lord and Master," I said, finding my words at last, "o God of All Gods, o god of the fathers of my fathers: You called to me, and I came, for I remain your whore and thrall."
"Indeed," he said, as though I'd told him the grass was green, and he sat on me, using my prostrate form like a stool; his touch was like ice upon my back, and I knew he revelled in my humiliation.
"Alarica, daughter of Roderik," he said at last, "my favorite witch, I brought you here to run an errand for me, assuming you're competent."
"I am your servant."
"Go to your father, and tell him I showed you this."
And he laid his hand upon the back of my head, and my sight went black, and I saw more dreams, more ghosts.
I saw Doros, great city of the Goths, my city, and it was burning. I saw the old Greek and Roman stone cracking from the heat as our buildings of wattle and thatch burned and fell. I saw the Law Tree, the great tree planted by my ancestor Godrik, son of Wulfrik; it lay hewn upon the earth. And the great hall of my fathers, the great hall of Gothland, was gone; only a smoking ruin remained, and over the ruin flew a banner, and I knew that banner. Black on a green background, a great forked stave with smaller staves on either side. The sign of the House Dulo. The sign of Attila's sons.
I returned then to the base of the kurgan, and I heard the god's horrible laughter, and I stammered, "What….what is….why?"
"The Borgunds had a kingdom," he said. "On the banks of the great river, on the westernmost verge of the Mirkwood, the Borgunds had a little kingdom, with a little king, one Gundahari. I sent them a hero, and he carried a curse, and the curse called a thousand thousand screaming riders out of the east to smash the kingdom into little pieces. This is now the matter of mighty songs, though you'll never hear them.". He stood up. "The shadow of doom falls over Gothland a second time, and the instrument is the same, but now doom has a herald. If you are willing, little Allie, you are my herald, and your lot is to chase doom from the walls of Doros to the uttermost east. You, Alarica, daughter of Roderik, are foredoomed to chase fire and war unto the very Gates of Alexander, there to bear witness to the final fall of those whom you call the Old People. That is all."
I heard him walking away, and then he stopped, and he said, "One last thing, child. Remember that it's only a foolish messenger who bothers to tell news when they'll profit nothing from the telling."
My world faded to black, then, and I believe I slept, there at the foot of the old king's grave.