The Witch and The Warrior
Sitting on a heap of mouldering straw in a bare stone cell, Jemmy reflected on the sequence of events that had led to his being here. He couldn't quite believe it himself.
"How yer doin', lad?" asked a wheezy voice in the gloom nearby.
Jemmy peered through the bars that separated his cell from the one next to it. In that cell, there was a wild looking old man with a straggly white beard. There was also a skeleton manacled to the wall. Jemmy felt a twinge of unease. So a prisoner had been sentenced to stay in the cell until he died?
"Hello, my good man," said Jemmy cautiously. "I am Jemedar of Coltbridge."
"Nice ter see a fresh face roun' 'ere," said the old man. "I'm Alric. They say I'm mad, but I can' think why. Lately it's just been me an' Gerald, but ole Gerald stopped talkin' long ago." Alric pointed at the skeleton.
"Right," said Jemmy. "I have to get out of here."
He called at the top of his voice for the guards.
"They won't answer," said a girl's voice from somewhere beyond the brick wall at the end of the row of cells. "They only come three times a day."
"I c'n 'elp," said Alric. "But yer got ter answer a riddle first."
"Alright then," said Jemmy.
"Mind, I don' want no cheating," said Alric sternly. "Mind yer keep quiet, Gerald. 'Ere it is."
He cleared his throat and began to recite:
"I am a jailer's strong right arm, all doors open to me. What am I?"
Jemmy considered. "Of course. A key!"
"That's righ'," laughed Alric. "That's 'ow I'm goin' ter 'elp yer."
The mad beggar removed a lose stone from the cell wall beside the skeleton and took out an iron key. "Gerald's been keepin' it safe!" he said laughing.
It was a skeleton key. Jemmy tried it in the lock and it fit! He stepped out cautiously. He began to unlock Alric's cell.
"I don' want ter come," said Alric. "Why risk it on the streets when I've got three meals a day here?"
"If you're sure…" said Jemmy, locking Alric's cell again. He crept stealthily down the passage to the staircase that led back to the streets.
"Sir, Sir! Help me please!"
Jemmy turned to see a strange sight. A bright green face was staring out of a grating in a heavy wooden door. It was the face of a girl, framed with yellow hair. But her skin was vivid green, so he couldn't help but stare. She gazed back at him for quite a long time, then her blue eyes narrowed. "D'you think I look funny, Sir?" She stuck out her greyish lips in a pout.
"No…" said Jemmy quickly. "Who are you and why are you locked up?"
"You can see my green face," said the girl. "Obviously, I'm a witch. I'm Thea, and I'm apprenticed to Mistress Moonfall. I left cos I wanted to see my friend who moved out of town. But they caught me and locked me up here. They said I'm gonna be tried as a witch and killed." She sniffed and her blue eyes were bright with tears.
"This is Hallow-Well," said Jemmy. "They're, erm… very harsh here."
Thea glared at him. "I know that. Are you gonna let me out, or leave me to die?"
Jemmy couldn't leave her to die, even if she was a witch.
"Hold on…" he tried to insert the skeleton key into the lock of her cell, but it didn't fit.
"The keys are on the wall, Sir," said Thea.
Jemmy turned and saw a bunch of keys hanging on the wall. He opened the cell door and Thea ran out, her green face split in a wide grin. "Oh thank you, thank you! I would hug you, but they did this to me." She held out her hands which were bound with wire shackles. "I think there's another key there."
Jemmy tried the smallest key on her shackles and they fell to the ground with a tinkling noise. Thea flung her skinny arms around him, hugging him tight. "You rescued me! Now I got the shackles off! You're my hero. I knew you had a kind face. I didn't have to threaten to hurt you."
"Hurt…?" said Jemmy.
Thea put her face close to his and beamed. "I said I didn't have to hurt you," she said. "Cos you're obviously kind." She giggled. "You have the sweetest face. I just wanted to kiss you the moment I saw you." She puckered her greyish lips.
Jemmy gripped her firmly by the shoulders and took a step back. "Be focused. We have to get out of here."
She stared into his eyes for a moment, then she tugged his arm. "Let's go!"
Jemmy picked up his backpack which was by the passage door. Thea gathered up a satchel that lay nearby, and together they crept up the stairs and out of the building and onto the streets where they made their way out of Hollowell. Thea kept her head down until they were outside the city walls, where she breathed a sigh of relief and flexed her green fingers. "Not a friendly town," she said. "So glad we're out."
"Um… young witch," said Jemmy, curtseying to her.
She grinned at him. The sunlight shone off her green nose. "You don't wanna call me, Thea? You could call me 'Little Witch.'" She touched his hand, then giggled again. Her green hand felt cold and clammy.
"Watch me curtsey." She gave an awkward imitation of his curtsey. "Sir!" she said in a stiff proper voice.
The young witch was teasing him! He felt his face grow hot.
"Sorry Thea. My name is Jemedar of Coltbridge. Or Jemmy," he added.
"Pretty name," said Thea giggling. "Like you. Hope you don't mind me saying, but you blush so prettily. Makes you cheeks go rosy pink."
Jemmy folded his arms. "I am on a perilous quest, so we have reached a parting of ways," he said. "I don't expect to survive."
He wanted to sound grave to impress her, but instead her green forehead crinkled in a scowl.
"No! You're not going away to die." She grabbed his arm in both of hers. Her blue eyes were bright with tears. "I won't let you."
"My quest is of the gravest importance," said Jemmy, taken aback. He hadn't wanted to upset her.
"I'm a witch," said Thea fiercely. "I can do magic. I can help."
"Hm. We'll have to discuss this properly. Somewhere calm. Not like Hallow-well…" He ran his fingers through his hair. "Let's go to the Pilgrim's Rest. It's a welcoming place."
Thea brightened as they made their way to the Pilgrim's Rest. Jemmy tried to teach her a Coltbridge marching tune on the way, but she kept wanting to invent silly lyrics.
"You're inventive. I'll give you that," said Jemmy.
"Thank you," said Thea, giving a mock-bow. "Can you help me think of new lyrics for the wandering man song? So it starts, ' the sun he shines full in my face…' She looked at Jemmy and grinned. "You could say, 'he blessed me with freckles all over my face, with beauty and with grace.'"
Jemmy didn't know how to respond to that.
"Will your kids look like you, d'you think?" asked Thea, gazing at him with bright blue eyes. "Your sons ought to turn out really handsome, with your sculpted jaw, and wavy brown hair. Just right for running my fingers through." She giggled, crinkling her shiny green nose.
"I'll find out eventually," said Jemmy with a small smile. "First, I have to find my true love. Like in the folk tales. These things have to happen in order."
"Ohh, she'll be a lucky girl, your true love," said Thea. "Now what are these folk tales? Tell me."
"There's the one where the hero rescues a girl from the tower where she is imprisoned," said Jemmy.
"Interesting," said Thea.
Dusk fell and trudging down the dusty road, they came to a three-story stone building with a painted sign hanging outside, proclaiming it to be the Pilgrim's Rest. The sign itself was an excellent work of art. It depicted a pilgrim carrying a scrip and leaning on a staff, passing a milestone pointing back to Hollowell. Neither of them ever wanted to go back there.
They passed under the sign and into the courtyard of the hostelry. The interior of the inn was one of traditional oak beams and whitewashed walls. Tables were set out round the bar-room, with a large fireplace in the far wall. A few customers were dotted about, sitting by themselves. Jemmy went up to the bar, Thea trotting after him.
The landlady, a woman with a ruddy face and hands calloused by work, was rubbing a tankard with a cloth. Jemmy inclined his head to her, and Thea smiled and waved. "Hallo there, young sir, little witch. How've you found travellin' in these 'ere parts? No trouble with bandits, I 'ope?"
"No trouble at all," said Jemmy.
He ascertained that he could only afford the one, room, so the two of them traipsed up the stairs into a bare room with a single, small bed. A fire was already crackling in the grate.
"It's past suppertime," said Jemmy.
"Right. Let me get some food," said Thea. She ran out of the room just as Jemmy started to protest about the cost. She returned with a tray that included steaming bowls of mutton with fruit and bread and cheese. They ate from it as they sat on the bed.
"I wanna hear your story," said Thea. "I wanna know more about the gorgeous warrior who saved my life."
"I'm sure," said Jemmy. "You really know nothing about me. Not even why they chucked me in that cell."
Thea took his hand in both of hers. "Don't be silly. I know you're innocent. And I know what those awful magistrates in Hallow-well are like. You rescued me when you didn't have any reason to trust a witch. And when I saw you're freckled face and looked into your soft brown eyes, I - I knew… um… I mean, I wanted…" She fell silent and licked her lips.
"You don't know my whole story," said Jemmy.
"Please tell me," said Thea.
"Very well," he began. "I am Jemedar of Coltbridge. I have passed the three tests to become a Warrior Hero. The test of strength, the test of sensitivity and the test of morality. I have gone out in the world seeking adventure and mortal danger."
"And your mother is alright with that?" said Thea raising her eyebrows.
"Can you not interrupt?"
Jemmy continued. "I have been duped and betrayed by a villain, an evil mage who is servant to the Beast. The one called Nazek."
Jemmy began his story.