Note: This is the first rough draft of a work in progress. I still have notes in it for later editing. Please be kind.
The Witch’s Claw – Chapter 1
by Inda Lauryn
She listened for the soft sound of the snow meeting the ground, building a blanket to comfort the now hard, frozen ground.
The sudden chill pleased her bare shoulder so that the realization it should be at least five more full moons before the next winter was delayed in manner of reason. And here in her barest sun attire without even a cloak to cover herself. She could already feel the cold snow gathering around her bare feet. It was definitely time to go home.
“Please, accept our apologies, but this interruption is most unexpected and beyond our parry.”
Jrue parceled out Almruy’s voice near the center of the ring. The sudden shift in the winds meant he would have to relinquish the coin he’d collected for the Gersam exhibition, drawing out the venom he never held down well enough to pass face as a kind gent. Despite his temperament, she approached him, following the scent of ambre hops.
“I would attribute this most unfortunate shift in the winds to you, but the Night Enchanters have been weak for more than three generations. The whole lot of you couldn’t call on your gods to bring enough rain to fill a piss bucket, much less a half-blind non-pedant all by herself.”
The outline of the man who stood before her began to show some semblance of a human as she squinted enough to see the curve of his mouth form a sneer.
“Tell me, Almruy, did you place your coin on _____’s head today? Then good thing the match was forfeited because even I could see the way she favored her left leg, the one she usually uses to execute her kill move. Perhaps she’ll heal by the time you’re able to re-commit an exhibition. Perhaps I’ll place my own coin then. But knowing your greed will follow me, am I willing to lose just to see your fall?”
The sharp, gruff exhale rather than his scowl told Jrue her words tipped him over.
“If you see the matches well enough to tell this, then maybe you should pay the admittance fee like the rest.”
“I see well enough, Almruy. But not enough to make your pitiful display of Gersam worth it.”
The sudden gust amplifying the cool flakes scattering around them told both Jrue and Almruy they needed to take cover, Jrue more so as she had quite the trek ahead of her to make it back to the other side of Adenru where her home in Eestly stood.
Jrue shuddered, her sun clothing doing almost nothing to protect her skin from the snowflakes gently caressing her. She was almost on the edge of town and would meet no other souls once she crossed it until she was within the invisible borders of Eestly. The smoke from chimney fires told her the residents had already gone inside to prepare their hearths for the unexpected return of winter. If lucked touched her, she might—
Yes, there was something. Jrue looked around as best she could. She saw and sensed no stirring, not even stray beasts that sometimes roamed through town, lost from its way in the woods. Jrue headed for what she hoped was a fur rug on a clothes string. She reached out and grabbed it as she passed never once breaking her stride as she freed it from the sturdy string. She wrapped the warm hide around her shoulders and quickened her pace. Only a few feet more before the woods covered her and she could fear no restitution for the pilfered makeshift garment.
“I’ll have to repay the family later.”
Jrue trudged through the rapidly falling sky creating a river of chilly snow at her feet. Perhaps because they were bare, it felt different than when she ventured out to gather it for water later. Then again, she’d never known it to snow during the sun season. The overcast kept the sunlight from helping her find the markers she usually relied upon to find her way through the woods: the patch of red whipples that smelled of river water even though there was no water source nearby, the tall evergreen tree that somehow had a green streak running down its trunk, and the bush of poison elderberries she’d had no cause to use. The snow had even dulled the scent of vanilla that greeted her when she was within sight of her home.
“Oomph!” Jrue tripped on a branch hidden underneath the snow. She caught herself by her right knee and hands, both of which she was sure would repay her for her clumsiness later. She sucked in her breath as she rolled over on her ample backside with her stolen fur the only barrier between it and the snow. She inspected her toe and decided it wouldn’t bleed, but the throbbing might need some attention. Jrue slipped her foot under the snow and packed the toes. At least if she had frostbite, she wouldn’t feel the sting of the impact of frozen wood against her nearly frozen flesh. Just a few more minutes, then she’d get up to go home and perhaps soak in a hot bath. She picked up a handful of fresh snow already tasting the soft, cool flakes melt on her tongue. She stopped once she got her hand under her nose.
Lavender. The flakes weren’t white but a light lavender, almost grey as ash. But cold to the touch. Jrue could think of no curses, no prophecies that would explain this bizarre act of nature during the sun season. This was no ordinary storm even in its freakish nature. Perhaps if her mother had returned from the elven king’s regency, she could provide some answers, reaching into her bag of lore that never reached the bottom.
Jrue stood, grimaced at the sharp pain that shot through her foot as she put pressure on her wounded toe, then headed back on the path she hoped would lead her home.
The warm air felt like a lover’s touch on her skin when Jrue walked into the house. Holly already had the fire going by the time she walked in. Jrue could always count on her brother’s preparedness. And his protectiveness. Mother was not due back from Adeginru until morning, so the hot bath drawn in the tub had to be for her. She heard no stirrings of Holly in the house, so she figured he might have gone to cover the garden with the others in hopes of saving the crops in case this storm proved a temporary and not a matter of a curse or a reckoning of the gods themselves, a stronger omen of a horror to come through wrath. She made no move to find out if Holly had simply retired to his room, no doubt having been at emergency preparations since the lavender snow fell. Jrue threw a few rose petals into the bath before throwing down the fur draped over her shoulders and removing her sun clothing.
The steaming hot water quieted the remaining pain in her foot as she settled in, feeling the sweat immediately begin to gather under her bushy hair. Her entire body thawed, returned to its usual softness in no time. The scent of the rose petals settled on her skin. She felt calm enough to sleep in the water, something Oriel warned her against ever since she could remember. So she sang one of her favorite odes to Ayema, the goddess of the sun season.
She hadn’t slept long. The water had barely cooled but no longer steamed. Her skin remained smooth as well. Still, she knew better than to remain idle. She reluctantly removed herself from the tub and found something to dry herself with. Jrue dug her winter clothing from storage, having put them away barely two months ago as the sun season finally settled in. She then headed to the pantry. The food intended for an outside roast would still make a good winter stew with her herbs.
“Jrue! You made it back from the Gersam match!”
Jrue emerged from the kitchen to help Holly carry in the beast he had slung around his shoulders.
“No, it’s fine. I got this. Please go and get our share of the vegetables from Nort’s wagon.”
“There was a harvest ready?”
“A few things. We took what we could and tried to save what had not already succumbed to the sudden chill. Go on. I’ll take this to the cutting floor.”
“I’d much prefer to take the beast.”
“Now, dear, he’s not that bad,” Holly said as he adjusted his haul. “Certainly, he’ll make no attempt to leer down your blouse under your fur and boots.”
Jrue sighed as she trudged through the snow that had already grown thick on the ground and in the air. Nort waited for her in his wagon. The stench of his lust greeted her before his too cheerful greeting did. Fortunately, she couldn’t see his face where his hood cover the places his unkempt beard did not.
“May the night keep you, Jrue.”
“May the night keep you, Uncle Nort.” She meant the honorific she’d given him after he’d failed to address her so to emphasize their business at hand as much as her unwillingness to engage in false pleasantries with him.
She heard his disappointment but knew it not enough to deter him. Of course, he persisted.
“Most unfortunate, most sudden. Lucky we had some crops to salvage…”
“Yes, most unfortunate, most sudden. I’d much like to take shelter from this. I’m to get our share?”
Jrue made out his nod toward the wagon hitched to his horses. “Last basket left. We already distributed to the others. I’ll make it back home when the moon is high.”
As if I care whether you fall into the river and freeze over, I’d not asked, she thought as she headed to the back of the wagon. To her dismay, the lone basket sat well in the front of the wagon bed. She sighed then climbed in to retrieve the perishables. Nort’s gruff chuckle greeted her as she picked up the basket.
“You know, dear, if I felt the need, I could simply whisk you away right now and find out if it’s worth it to your family to have you returned with your virtue intact.”
Jrue calmly jumped out of the wagon with her goods. “Probably not as much as your family would prefer to not have you returned drawn and quartered as I’m about to do with that beast Holly brought in. Now if you’re done with your poor display of courtship, I’ll be taking my leave.”
She was almost at the door before she heard Nort turn the wagon and head back. Holly had the beast set in the cutting floor by then.
“The next time you promise that man a moment alone with me, I’ll deprive you both of that extension that seems to warp your better judgment.”
Holly sighed, “What harm does he do, Jrue? He simply expresses an interest, rather playfully. Why can’t you be flattered for the attention?”
“Threatening to kidnap me and have his way is not mere jest, brother. And your complicity does little to reassure me you aren’t in need of the fix he so sorely needs.”
“You have my apologies, sister,” Holly said more in resignation than apology. “He doesn’t care about your affliction—”
“Damn my affliction, Holly!” Jrue spat with more force than intended. She sighed heavily and remembered her inside voice before continuing. “I can assure you I’m in no need or want of a husband or a marriage.”
“But you may need a companion, someone to help you look after yourself for when—”
Holly sighed as he stopped the dreary train of thought and busied himself with preparing the beast for skinning. Jrue took her place at his side.
“I know many here think me a burden to you and mother. But you both know I’m perfectly capable to surviving on my own if it comes to it. I’ll not worry myself with anyone who thinks himself doing me a favor by putting me under his control.
Holly said nothing as they prepared the family’s rations for an unexpected, uncertain winter. [Describe how to skin, quarter a beast.]
The winter stew had finished by the time Jrue had cleaned herself of the beast’s entrails, nearly voiding her of her earlier soak in rose petals. The rumbling of her stomach that anticipated the meal reminded her that she hadn’t eaten since before she headed to the Gersam match. She’d hoped Oriel would return before nightfall but knew she’d have to wait until morning with the ever thickening snow.
“So what do you think this is?” Jrue asked Holly as she stuffed a pinch of bread in her mouth with a spoonful of stew. “I know of no omens, no prophesies that foretold of lavender snowfall.”
Holly shrugged his shoulder nonchalantly. “Neither do I. I went to no elder or seer, for I wanted to make sure we were adequately supplied. I thought we’d wait to ask mother when she returns.”
“Perhaps we should prepare her hearth. I know it seems a waste, but who knows if she managed winter covering to supplement her sun clothing. She couldn’t have anticipated this. I barely managed myself.”
“But I do see you managed something.”
Jrue looked toward the hide she’d left to air out by the door. “I’ll return it as soon as allowed with my apologies.”
They both became too involved with the stew to converse further. Afterwards, Jrue prepared her hearth and the one in her mother’s quarters. She hadn’t expected to do winter chores, but they would be her calling in the morrow. There was mending to be done, books to copy, candles to mold to assure she could see in the sun’s absence. But she would think about that when her body awakened itself, telling her another day beckoned for her participation. Her eyes barely stayed open long enough for her to blow out her candle and slip into the softness of her bedding.
The stirring was slight but enough to wake her from a sleep that hadn’t been long enough to let her dream. It could have been Holly, but she doubted it. She reached under her pillow for her sgian-dubh, ready to strike if necessary. But the familiar stifled cough revealed an identity.
Mother was home.
Jrue relinquished the comfort of her bedding to see Oriel. Her mother looked a small figure underneath a borrowed fur, stoking the meager coals in the hearth. Jrue realized Oriel had made it home before the sun rose, and the older woman knew her children would be asleep. But whatever illness attached itself to the lavender snow had invaded her lungs. She turned to look at her daughter when she finally sense her presence. Something else appeared off with her.
“Mother,” Jrue said as she knelt at Oriel’s side. “You look sad—and worried. It can’t be this sickness that saddens you so. You’ve seen much worse.”
Oriel didn’t answer. In the light of the dull flame, Jrue saw the glistening of the teardrops that had begun to stream down Oriel’s face, but she still touched her mother’s face to be sure the wet tears were real.
“Mother,” Jrue’s voice came out in almost a whisper. “Is it this cursed snow, Mother? Do you know why?”
Oriel took the hand that caressed her face gently into her own before her voice finally served her.
“Oh dear, child. The elven king is dead.”
“Whatever charm you used to hold the fever at bay is wearing off.”
Jrue adjusted her mother’s bedding, making sure her feet remained covered. She didn’t understand how Oriel could stay so resistant and ornery when others cared for her. She couldn’t convince her mother to lie down as they waited for Holly to return with the broth. “I’ll only need to sit up again! Why waste the energy.” Fortunately, the scent of the warmed broth preceded him to Oriel’s room. Jrue took the bowl from him and turned to help her mother.
“I can do it from here. I’m not a helpless invalid you know.”
Still, Jrue readied her hands to help Oriel steady the bowl as she slowly sipped the hot liquid devoid of the solid foods her stomach probably could not hold. Jrue hated when charm effects wore off her mother. The woman became an insufferable stranger. Although it had faded through the years, Oriel had some of the most powerful magic within the Night Enchanters’ regency. This was not simply sickness from the inclement weather. She must have warded off a particularly powerful enchantment to affect her this way.
“Holly, go back to bed. I’ll sit here until morning to see if the fever wears off.”
“No! I must tell you. I must tell you both!”
Oriel gained a bit of clarity sooner than expected. She even made no attempt to swat Jrue’s hand away to take her temperature. Still warm, but the fever was already receding. Oriel’s powers overcame once again.
“Mother, I’m sure this can wait until morning after you’re properly rested.”
“I’ll not sleep a wink this remaining night until you know all about it. Our entire realm has been shaken. Why did you suppose we had this strange and sudden snowfall of lavender?”
The lavender snow. The unnatural cold during the sun season.
“But, Mother, I don’t understand. Of course, the elven king had a power like no other but for his death to cause this chaos of nature? Perhaps I underestimate the extent of your ailment.”
Oriel slowly lowered the bowl that had been at her lips. Her next words were directed only at her daughter. “There’s so much you don’t know, child. It’s time you did.”
Jrue adjusted the oil lamp at her mother’s side, careful not to spill it on Oriel’s carefully placed books, while Holly made himself comfortable at the foot of her bedding. They were in for a long story.
“We never told you how well we knew the elven king, Elnnos, but he and your father were close, as close as two could be without being blood or intimates. Nothing ever got in the way of their friendship. Not even me. Not that it was my wish, but when I decided I wanted to bring new life, he agreed. He sired the both of you, continued to live with the king as his companion. I know you remember those times you saw him when you were but children. He’d have been more of an uncle to you had I not insisted on raising you in Adenru where you belong, where I could teach you our craft if necessary.
“What you don’t know is that 20 rounds ago, he expected his own child. He held celebrations for days as the entire realm awaited the birth. I was asked to be here when the day arrived, offer blessings and connect the child to the ancestors. I saw to it even though I knew our magic as Night Enchanters hadn’t been as strong as it had been in the past. I had every confidence we would see a successful birth. But soon, I had to deal with the complications. This child had no intention of entering our world easily. Neither survived.
“Elnnos never openly blamed me, but I sensed a tension whenever he looked at me and the children I bore with his best friend. Your father, Ceinpr, told me I should wear no guilt over it, but how could I not. Two lives lost. So I let a few days pass before I made him an offer.
“If by his sixtieth round he bore no heirs, I would convince you. He would not only have his heirs, but he would also finally share a blood tie with his dearest friend. Of course, he agreed. I know you were not trained to be a queen, Jrue, but he tended to like lovers who showed them a true nature, not one expected before a king.
“As you know his sixty rounds had passed. That’s why I traveled to Adeginru, to find if he still wanted this arrangement and discuss the best way to present you. We decided he was to come here, let you lay your eyes upon him away from the trappings of his kingdom. He thought it best you know the man he is now rather than have an idea of who to compare him to from his past inclinations. Your affliction also helped. He still had his vanities.
“I was on my way back here to tell you, prepare you for Elnnos’ visit as I had every confidence you’d hear him out. But as I passed the borders of Aillnos, my horse became uneasy and almost tossed me from my saddle, but I stayed. Then I felt it, a piercing in my insides and a weakness in my head. And as I felt it, this snow fell. Only it’s not snow. These are ashes, dear child. Cold ashes from the lavaless volcano that stands in the middle of the mountains separating our lands from the seas. I knew then. I knew the land had begun to mourn the rarity who had been our only every king.
“And now I must tell you why it is imperative I set out again as soon as I recover from whatever curse I know Iriva has set upon me.”
Jrue barely listened as Oriel went over the story she’d heard in rips and tears whenever she ventured about town, the neutral zone where Night Enchanters got along with the elves, sirens, and pixies or at least feared no unjust altercations. That particular origin tale held its own import among all of the entire realm. That she’d been promised to the elven king left her conflicted. She’d been chosen for the elven king himself—but she’d had no say herself. Simply expected to go along because she would definitely have no better options.
“You’re not listening to me Jrue,” Oriel said, leaning back in a frustrated huff. “I know you’ve heard this and that regarding the Witch’s Claw, but you don’t know the whole truth about it. It’s not just a tale for children to enchant you into silence. Elnnos understood its power to create in the right hands, destroy in the less faithful. He never told anyone what power it wield, its full potential, but some believe it gives its holder unlimited power. He had the chance at that, but he made Onewa and Iriva agree with him that Ghint was not ready for what the Claw might bring. So he hid it away beyond the Seventeen Mountains where none but the creatures of nature dwell. With him gone, there’s bound to be a search. And Iriva…”
Oriel drifted off as if a sleeping spell had overcome her. Holly came over to check on her. Jrue took the opportunity to exit the room. Holly spoke just as she reached the doorway.
“She’s still enchanted, fighting it as best she can but she’s succumbing.”
“Yes, I know that.”
Jrue walked out of her mother’s quarters but didn’t head for her own. Instead, she found herself contemplating the fur she’d pilfered when the lavender ash brought the odd winter. She picked it up and carried it over the loom. Despite the state of her eyes, weaving had been a specialty of hers. But her sudden idea for the fur might not work.
She pushed the question of her compulsion away from that place that quieted every adventurous notion that kept her from venturing beyond the invisible borders of Adenru for fear the unfamiliar surroundings would lead her further away from where she could easily return. She told herself the next couple of hours she spent making the cape had nothing to do with Oriel’s plan to be rid of her because she thought she was too useless to continue living in Adenru. She told herself her desire to find the Witch’s Claw had less to do with her pride and more to do with playing her part to assure its safety. Had Oriel not been bewitched, Jrue was certain she would have traveled directly to the Seventeen Mountains herself as soon as the first lavender flakes fell. But whoever had cursed her made sure Oriel would need to come back to Adenru to regain her strength.
Jrue peeked into her mother’s room. Holly had fallen asleep at the foot of her bedding unable to stay awake long enough to occasionally check Oriel’s condition. Jrue lightly walked over to her mother to feel her head. The fever was still strong but relenting itself to the remedy of sleep. She would be fine once whatever had caused the curse worked itself out of her body.
She had plenty of time.
Jrue rushed to her room to look for the paper and quill she rarely used for anything other than writing down recipes and techniques for the weaving and hiding. Her penmanship lacked adult sophistication but clarity of her intentions. She addressed it to Oriel even though she knew Holly would find it first once he realized she hadn’t gone on a hunt in hopes of finding a beast or two still out in the forest in this unexpected winter. And when he did find the letter, he would not dare leave Oriel’s side as an enchantment impaired her. She had no horse, but a three-day head start on the trek would still give her plenty of distance.
The Seventeen Mountains lied beyond where Aamir and Aillnos surrounded the elven lands of Adeginru. She only knew she had to follow the Gnohstum to find the mountains. Fortunately, the stars shone brightly enough so that even Jrue could use them as her guide.
Jrue left the letter on her bed to let it await the moment Holly deemed her absence concerning enough to enter her private quarters. With her pouch, sgian-dubh, and crossbow, she had all the supplies she could carry. Perhaps Holly would discover her before a newly fallen ashen snow could cover the tracks from her heavy winter boots. The fur cape made her look like any ranger traveling through the area, so perhaps no one would remember seeing her for a couple of days.
“This must be done. You are within your abilities.”
The spoken affirmations led her out the door. She blinked at the cloud cover from the ashen snow, hoping it would relent by the time she made it out of Adenru. She knew her way to the border, but she would need Gnoshstum to lead her the rest of the way.
It was the only way her eyes could lead her to the Witch’s Claw.