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By The Hand Of The Witch

A drought was ruinous by nature, especially to a witch whose power resided in a lake. As the lake shrank, her secrets were exposed for all the world to see. What was the point of putting them there if they weren’t going to stay hidden? They were old secrets, but those were some of the most potent, the ones earned in battle and blood. The best ones were always drowned. It felt like a curse at work, possibly one designed to steal her power. Maybe that was why Sereska hadn’t figured out how to break it yet. Her focus had been on protecting the people and the crops, in the limited way she could manage these past fifteen months without rain.

Whomp, whomp, whomp. The drum beats with precision, even throughout the night. It’s the magick, calling warnings to her, telling her about the things that the world can now see. Begging her to fix this, to make their blithe exposure a thing of the past. Sereska is compelled, and would be even if her own secrets weren’t exposed. There are too many belonging to others  in that lake, needing the cool depths of water that was no longer there. She had other secrets, of course, but her biggest had always been in the lake. It was the only place large enough to hold them. Water had its own power.

“Sereska, please,” a voice pleaded at her door. “We need anything you have. The food stores are running low in the village. It has been too long without rain. We will not make it.” It was the chieftain. He only begged when it suited his whim.

“Go away, Donar, and I will try to make this right. Your words cannot sway what is already decided,” she shouted, but he continued his tiresome pleading.

It was all she thought about these days, consuming all of her energy. Donar did not understand this and so he begged from behind the oak of her door. He continued right up until she opened the door and found him on his knees. That wouldn’t do. She helped him upright and sent him back to the village with a light tap on the rear. She would send word if she needed help that he could provide.

Were she less charitable, she might have found the whole situation funny. Donar hadn’t begged her in the fourth month when she mentioned her growing concern as he rolled out of her bed. He’d laughed at her fears, languid with the calm of the spent, carefree and easy as he dressed. Her fears had been brushed aside that day.

“You can’t do more than all the men who will be taking part in the rain rite. No, stay here and just make your love potions and tend the new babes,” he’d said, casually dismissing her when she suggested that it might take more than an abbreviated version of a  rite to fix the wrongs.

The sun had boiled the land even then, and that was was just after winter. No one but her had looked it with any real concern. The rite had been Donar’s way of acknowledging it without giving in to concern. The winter past had been snowy, hard and freezing. After enduring such, they welcomed the warmth. Welcomed it still until they went three more months without rain, and then the bravest of the farmers began to complain. That felt like such a distant memory.

She would fix the drought. That had always been her plan, but it was taking longer than anticipated to find the source of the curse and difficult with her secrets and power out in the open. The drought was hanging over her head, an unsolvable riddle she needed to answer to save herself. Everything she’d done before had failed and it vexed her that she’d been fooled. It had gone on too long and more people were in danger than herself. She would hold power so long as the secrets in the lake did. Witches were nothing without power, just mortals. Without the full flush of water, her secrets would shrivel and turn to so much dust without a thought for her.

The lake was almost dry. In the middle, at the very center, it held the pearl that cleaned and fed the water. Once there was a mussel, but now it was just the pearl. It acted as a lodestone for her magicks. If the water dried completely, she might just become powerless. Sereska was desperate to avoid that fate.

Witches were nothing new in the area, but they’d faded out of fashion. She wasn’t sure how it happened, but now she needed a village and sponsorship by the chieftain, as if she wasn’t old enough to be his mother twice over. New practitioners were rare, and they almost always came as rivals to power and not apprentices. In the old days, she might have mentored, had a researcher to help her with this crisis.

Her own magicks came from the lake in part, but there was more to it than that. There had to be because she was the only witch around this area. Territory and power were not things given but earned, taken from those that claimed the area in the past. Sereska had been a fighter for much of her life. Power was earned in blood, battle and by cunning and intelligence. Magick was maintained by those same efforts. She had to feed it, as surely as she had to put food in her own belly.

There had to be something she was missing. It felt like an insult to admit it, but her pride was not bigger than the lives of the people around her. These months had her pouring over spellbooks and grimoires, searching for answers that never manifested. It had to be something she was overlooking. She thought more mundanely and still came up empty and exhausted.

Instead of sitting in her house alone, she made a trip to the market square. People, she needed to be around more than just old tomes and speculation. Life breathed the truth from the voice of regular folk. Mostly, Sereska didn’t get out unless there was a good reason, and callers only came for services. Donar was her only regular visitor. There was a chance that the chieftain was holding back from the people, or had missed an observation that they saw. Listening to the murmurs could be advantageous. Information was key, but she also had to do her shopping.

There was a throng clustered in the little square where the pronouncements were made, though the platform stood empty and silent, as did most of the fields where they grew crops. Only melons grew in drought and those died just like everything else without water. Villagers were gossiping in anxious, harried whispers.  Her arrival gave them more fodder, her failures more to speculate about. It wasn’t soon before she was caught up in the middle of their group.

“Could be another one, couldn’t it?” A woman spoke to her, the first to address her directly since she’d gotten caught up in the crowd.

“Another what?” Sereska asked, turning her attention to the woman. She waited as the woman chased a child from her skirt and then resumed her conversation.

“Witch. The rivalries go on pretty long don’t they? Could be that’s what happened, someone come for you and try to catch you unawares or decided to make a play for your town. Maybe one of us made ‘em mad.”

“I don’t have any rivals or even any other witches in the area that I know about,” Sereska mused, more to herself than the woman.

“Well, you’d best be sure because if there is another witch, they’ve got us facing a lean winter after this drought. People will die just like the crops that withered or didn’t grow in all this heat.”

“Too right!” Another voice exclaimed, joining the crowd of people. Other people cheered this statement.

Silently, she agreed with them. People would die. This drought would take a human cost all too soon. She didn’t think there were any witches, rivals or not, around, but it was another thing to check on, Sereska decided.

 

Donar was waiting at her door when she returned. Her shopping bag was only half-full, the haul meager at best. Even wool was running low since the shepherds had too little feed. The village was already rationing their food, but no one had ideas on how to stop the drought, nothing at all. All she’d gotten from the crowd was their general sense of worry aside from the comment about another witch. The poorest of them spoke the loudest, for it was they that would fall first. Each death would stain her hands as much as her failures to discover the reason for the drought had.

Donar was sitting patiently in front of her door, idly knocking on it as she drew closer. His eyes flicked up from under the brim of his hat at the sound of her footsteps on the dusty path. He stood hastily, shaking the dirt and dust from his clothes.

“I thought you were ignoring me,” he shouted, by way of a greeting.

Sereska didn’t know what to say to that, so she kept silent as she closed the distance between them. There were times she did ignore him, but not recently. They were a long-lived people and witches more than most. When Donar had become chieftain ten years back, he’d badgered her often for advice and wisdom. She had begun applying judicious silence to his requests since he’d become chieftain. He had to stand on his own, or he wouldn’t hold his position for long, regardless of what wisdom she may choose to impart. Silence was a better way than constantly saying no.

“Donar, come inside,” she said, her voice soft as she waved away the wards that guarded her door. The door only let him knock because it was told that he could.

“Would another rain rite help?” he asked, but there was no hope in his voice. She could hear that he knew it wouldn’t but wanted to be reassured. Sereska sat her shopping down and sighed before answering.

“I don’t think so, but it might help the people feel better. There is a piece missing and I cannot understand what it is. This drought feels magical but not malicious. But it resists all my attempts at banishing.”

“Are you sure it’s magick if it can’t be banished?” he asked.

“I’m not sure of anything,” Sereska admitted. After a moment of hesitation she added, “Donar, I will grow weaker as the lake dries. I am already losing power. The people think this is the doing of another witch. If I become powerless before I can figure it out, you must slay them for me. My weakness will bring rivals, even if there are none now. My secrets are exposed in the dry lake and that kind of vulnerability could draw the attention of another.”

Donar gave her a somber look. “Will you die?” he asked bluntly. There was sadness in his eyes that tempered the harshness of the question. He cared for her, she knew, but a chieftain was an ill-match for a witch.

“Probably not, but there is a chance. There is always that possibility, but I am old and hard to kill,” she said, giving him a smile. It was meant to be reassuring, but she wasn’t sure if it came out right. They were silent until she spoke again, “Will you do the same rain rite as before, or is there another?”

“My sages have been looking in the books as you suggested. An older one was uncovered. In the writings of my father four times back. He was a mighty witch.”

Sereska perked up. “May I see his writings? Have you read much of them?”

Donar shook his head. “I know almost nothing, as you have pointed out many times. The book is yours, if it will aid you. I hope it does. I will have it brought around.”

Sereska opened her mouth to thank him but stopped herself. Donar was looking his weariness, playing with his straw hat between two calloused fingers. The dark curls of his black hair stood out at all angles and his eyes were shadowed. Instead of standing tall, he stood with shoulders hunched, tired and already defeated. She went over to where he stood in her doorway and put her hand on his heart. When he looked down at it, she stood on tiptoe to kiss the end of his nose.

“I remember your father twice back talking about his grandfather. I never knew he was a witch,” she admitted. “I didn’t know him.”

“Just how old are you?” he asked slyly, giving her an appraising look.

Sereska laughed, but wouldn’t answer. “Get out,” she said, her voice merry for all that weighed on her mind. “I need to think.”

He kissed her cheek and shuffled out, putting on his straw hat to shade him from the relentless sun.

The writings were as dull as they were fragile. The papyrus hadn’t been magicked or bound properly and the brittle pages had to be handled delicately. Donar’s grandfather, however far back he was, wasn’t much of a witch. Donar had called him mighty, but perhaps that was in celebration of deeds and not his prowess. He was more of a healer, so it made sense that he had rain rites and spells for taking the itch of bug bites. Not that it was of much help to her, but Sereska understood it.

Carefully, she paged through the book. There was almost nothing on power and sacrifice in the writings, and too much about how to maintain plants. That could be useful, provided she could cast a spell once the lake dried out. Love spells, remedies, a rite for cleansing the water, another for warm sun — nothing that she needed.

Sereska’s last thought as she lay in bed was that she could try the risky magick of backwards glancing. It would allow her to see back in time, though that power wasn’t normally afforded to her. If she managed to get the timing correct, she might see what or who caused the drought. It was the only option left to her.

There had been so many hunts before the drought began, Donar had been prosperous. It was likely the only reason their village had survived as long as it had before realizing there was a problem. But he had offered proper thanks to their goddesses, she had seen it at every gathering. Maybe it was not that they had not offered respect, but disturbed some old magick in their hunt. That was likely, though not very. There were many old spells still around, things she hadn’t had the time or inclination to seek out and rip from their moorings. But then, why was it so focused on her? She had not been here for that long. Generations perhaps, but not long enough for a very old and powerful spell like this. The more she thought on it, the more it seemed her answers lay in the more recent past.

Then there was the talk of a rival. She would have to do the circuit around the village and the outskirts. Perhaps she could ask the chieftain to lend her some warriors for protection. She hated to be alone when searching out a potential malicious magick. If there was someone, she would call them out properly and not risk the lives of others. Battles were fought between witches on the shadow plains when the moon was high. Sereska was not at full power, but she might still win against an upstart.

That thought was best left until action could be taken and the threat proved in its veracity. Too many variables, too many people that might just like to cause chaos. She focused on the backward glancing potion. It was time-consuming but not difficult, and she knew what was required to brew it. It was known and unlike the imagined rival she was thrashing in her head, she was sure she could make it.

Goddess be, it would take her at least a week to brew the potion, and that was if she had all the agents. Then there was no telling she would get the timing right. The drought seemed to have started fifteen months before, but might have been in the works long before then. It was her last idea, and not a very good one. The realization gave her little comfort as Sereska fell into an uneasy slumber near dawn.

 

The mixing of the backward glancing potion took time, and during that waiting period she went to look for other witches or practitioners. Donar loaned her warriors for her search, though they were more there to keep her safe from anything other than a rival. Their circuit around the village was long, but her area was a large one. When they came upon a cave, she smelled the burnt embers of ill-cast magicks. Unexpected and disturbing to actually find another witch lurking around.

Sereska stepped forward and shouted, drawing on her power to root herself to the ground. It would have been her preference to go further into the cave and explore to see if she knew this person, but she was not so foolish as to enter the lair of an enemy. Plus she didn’t want to get any of Donar’s pretty warriors hurt. Wounds cast by magick could only be healed by the same and she was not sure she could manage both a battle and a healing.

“Rival. This area is of my lands, and I am sanctioned by the chieftain of these people to steward and nurture the ground,” Sereska called. His power smelled thick and unrefined and not talented. There was no breeze to stir it to her nostrils and for that she was glad. Breathing in more might just make her cough.

Sereska waited, but he said nothing. Then she felt the zip of lightning buzzing toward her. Sighing, she reached out and caught the bolt before it could hit her or Donar’s warriors.

“Have you caused the drought?” she asked in a yell. Her impatience was getting the better of her. The answer came in the form of another bolt, and she snatched it before it could cause any harm.

“By root and branch, shadow and light, I call thee rival to the duel for power on the shadow plains. Respond or relinquish your life essence to me now,” Sereska said, shouting out the ancient words. The ground responded by shaking, shadows flickered and the wind picked up before abruptly dying, accepting her challenge.

It was then that she saw the rival, a mousy looking scrap of a man that would have made a better seller of books and antiquities than a witch. Perhaps that was what he had been before and stumbled upon a book of power. It mattered not, because he finally came to face her, the fear she’d imparted printed on his features. He stamped his feet in the dirt to avoid looking her in the eye as he spoke.

“We don’t have to call upon the shadows to witness this do we?” he asked, displaying his ignorance. It was already done, the challenge issued. He stood four meters away from her, shouting in his thin, reedy voice. She didn’t bother to answer.

“I can help,” the man whined. “I know when this went wrong. I can hear it in the trees, on the wind.” The silence had been taken for greed or mulishness, she couldn’t decide to which he was responding. This little wisp of a witch could not help, even if the details of their trouble were written in the wind. If he heard truth in their whispers, it was by accident.

“You cannot,” Sereska said, shaking her head sadly. “And we shall meet on the shadow plain if you insist upon staying here. These lands are mine, by right of bone and blood.”

Sereska hoped he would go without trying to fight, but he didn’t. He pretended to meekness, when he should have tried for cunning.  The shadow plain enveloped them as he launched another bolt of lightning at her and she deflected it as easily as she had the others. Shadows bound them, bade them to duel for life and death and power. There was nothing to do here but win or die.

It was their dimension, that of witches, a flat stretch of land in perpetual night but peppered with a sky full of blood red stars. He tried again to hit her with lightning, vexing Sereska. Did he know no other spells? She brought pain down upon him, hard and fast and furious, crushing his chest.

“No, let me help you, I am strong,” he panted, his words thick with the blood that filled his lungs.

“It was over when you shot lightning in the field. May the goddess accept you, child,” Sereska said and then brought the crushing weight of nothingness down upon him again.

She heard him wheeze his last breath and perish without another word or bluster. Pitiful, and a waste. Whatever life he’d left for power, he should have stayed there. Perhaps if he had, he would not have found death at the first wrong turn. Her mousy rival died there with whimper and the merest hint of her power. Scavenger. He’d come to pick her off when she was weak. His tiny bit of power would ebb away soon, so long as the drought kept on. The mortal realm descended upon her as the shadow plain declared her victorious, her foe slain. The warriors bowed to Sereska as she reappeared in their midst, looking tired. She would still have to tell Donar of him, her would-be rival. He was not responsible for this mess, but there would be more like him soon enough.

 

 

The potion worked, and as was suggested, she found the date by listening to the things that had witnessed the past. For her it was the rocks, the ones embedded in the almost dry river bed. The water had always spoken to her, and its servants were the ones to help her find the time she needed. It was eighteen months before, a change had happened to shift a balance so delicate that its change affected everything.

When she drank the potion, river rock in her hand, Sereska was pulled to the right location. It was like a waking dream, full of indistinct shapes and misty edges. She was like a ghost, visible but not solid, able to hear and speak but forgotten afterwards.

It was here she saw Donar, leaving her home. She followed him to the edge of a cliff, where he took out a scrap of fabric he’d purloined from her. He shouted into the sky, sinking to his knees like a supplicant under the open sky. He spoke words of power that he should not know, and she only recognized them from the old tome he’d given her, the work of his father four times back, the healer.

He was trying to bespell himself to be stronger, to be worthier in her eyes, but he was no witch. He’d done this for her affection, not a curse but a spell that backfired. It was focused on her because he was stupidly using her piece of her belongings, chanting her name as he confessed his love to the wind, the birds, to the goddesses above. This ritual was old, too old to work. Goddesses changed, and as did their people. He must have read it in that old book, the one he gave her to undo all this mess.

“Donar, you should have spoken up!” Sereska shouted, making him turn around.

“I did. I painted your door with the blood of the oxen and sent the five gifts. I did what tradition asked, but you remained silent. So I am here to ask for more. If I am more, stronger, faster, better, the goddesses will grant their favor. You would notice.”

“I knew,” Sereska whispered, but Donar didn’t turn back towards her. She thought he’d been jesting. She was a witch, not a wife to a chieftain.

It was time to put it right, now that she knew how. She returned to her body ending the effects of the potion with the effort of bringing mind back to body.

It took all of her hair, because the thick braids she wore held some of her power. She cut them and then took the razor to her own head until it gleamed. She gave the strands to the wind where Donar had stood and begged their forgiveness. She damned her own pride and did the rain dance. Soaked the ground in her potion of hair and blood and tears, and tried to undo what had been done. Magick pieces of her, offered to the goddesses restore balance so unintentionally upset. Then at the very end, Sereska asked for Donar’s favor, because it was she that should do the asking as a woman. She would propose when the rains came and stopped.

It rained for two days and nights after she ended the spell, crawling on bloodied hands and knees back to her cabin. Rain sprinkled her forehead as she waved the door open. Sereska took to her bed with illness, growing stronger only as the lake began to refill, covering her secrets.

Donar was sitting at her side when she regained consciousness on the third day of rain. Sleepless shadows dogged his eyes, but he was alert. He was wiping at her forehead with a damp cloth. Sereska reached out and stilled his hand, bringing it to her mouth. She kissed his knuckles with chapped lips.

“It was you all along, silly lad.” It was cheek to call the chieftain a lad, but if anyone was to scold him, it was she. “You could have just asked me to marry you,” she chided.

“You would have said no,” Donar said, smiling down at her. “Just like you always do when I ask foolish questions.”

“Probably,” Sereska admitted. “But not now.”

Donar shook his head, slowly, fueling her confusion. “I cannot ask again, not yet. Let me make it up to my people first, and if I am worthy then, I am yours.”

“Let me ask next time,” she said, and watched as his face brightened.

“I am yours,” he said. “Whenever you ask.”

He was a good chieftain, she decided as she drifted back into sleep. Even if he had cursed her, it hadn’t been malicious, just foolhardy. That was a dangerous trait to have in a husband, but she was wise enough to recognize the risk.


About The Author:
EM Beck is the author of Purpose published by Devilfish Review in 2016 and The Four Skilled Sisters, published in the anthology Spellbound and Spindles by Eggplant Productions in 2014. She is an author and artist based in Pittsburgh, PA. When not working, she indulges her love of good stories, saving the world in video games or planning her next photo adventure. Visit her website http://rainsontheplain.com or find her on instagram at instagram.com/emabeck