Written By: David Oeters
It was evening, and the foundry in the town of Boris glowed red like the eyes of a demon. The town sat along a muddy creek that ran wound between the rocky slopes of the Iron Hills in southern Kalimura. A gray stone fortress sat at one end of the valley, while the homes and businesses sat on the paved roads that wound up the hillsides. In the center of town, straddling the creek, were the foundries and iron works, the guild houses and craftsmen that used the steel. Tonight a haze from the foundry hung heavy in the air, thick and choking. A smoky red, it glowed against the red dirt of mine scarred hills above the town. The late summer wind shifted during the day, coming in from the sea and pushing the smoke back into the cramped streets.
Along the creek were the foundries. Stone buildings built thick to resist the heat, with gaping doors wide enough for the wagons and chimney stacks that breathed clouds of smoke in the blue Kalimuran air. Beside the foundries, hidden in the shadows of those massive buildings, sat inns and taverns for the steel workers. Ramshackle wooden buildings blackened with soot, they offered what relief they could from the ironworks.
In The Golden Wheel, the innkeeper was shutting the windows against the acrid smoke. There was an unnatural chill that evening, like an echo of winter, with the sky above darkened as storm clouds gathering in the distance. The tavern was crowded tonight. Mineworkers, dwarves and humans in smudged leather smocks, sat beside young Kalimuran craftsmen in silk and soft cotton. Merchants traveling to the Drakellian Alliance were there, crowded in the back against a spindly staircase. Even a few Grum were sitting around a table sipping tea from chipped clay glasses.
And near the front of the room, with the fireplace behind him casting dancing shadows across the crowd, stood an old man. He was a big man who filled the front of the room, with a stained blue cotton shirt half tucked into frayed doublet and jerkin. The flesh of his stomach hung over a tied hemp rope. In his meaty hands he held an empty mug. He grunted, and a serving girl stepped forward to refill the mug. Ale dribbled from his mouth as he took a drink, along the pasty white skin of his face. The room was quiet, waiting. In the kitchen the innkeeperís wife was cooking stew, the rhythmic sound of her knife chopping carrots.
"His name is Gregor Mirren," a young man sitting near the fire whispered softly to his friends. "He was once a councilman, and his father a Mayor. He knows all the history of the Iron Hills. If anyone would know about magic, it would be Gregor."
"So you want to know about magic," the old man said loudly, slamming his mug on the table.
The patrons of The Golden Wheel shuffled at the sound of the word. Magic. It hung in the air a moment, the room silent. "Yes, Gregor... sir," the young man said. He wore green long coat embroidered with silvery threads that contrasted sharply with his bronze skin and pale green eyes. "There are stories," the boy continued. "About magic. About a farmerís child that was lost in the southern woods just a few days ago. Stolen by wolves, the militia thought. Then the girl was found the next morning, and she had a scar on her leg. One that wasnít there before, but looked old and long healed. The work of the witch... torturing her." He paused, glancing around at the others sitting beside him. "They say it was a witch that stole the girl. A witch in the southern woods who steals children and uses her magic on them. They say she can talk to the spirits, turn herself into a wolf, or even worse, a krallinar." The crowd was muttering now, shifting in their seats as the boy spoke. "And she can fly and listen to voices on the wind. She can even bedevil a man just by looking at him. Magic, milord Gregor! Thereís a witch in the southern woods."
The room quieted, waiting for Gregor to speak. The old man picked up his ale and nodded. "A witch," he said. "And magic. The old magic, boy. The most dangerous sorts be practicing the old magic. The talking to animals and spirits. Shapeshifting and such. Bah!" he growled, waving his hand. "What do you know of magic, Samuel? You are young, and you have good Minister Albert and the Technomancers to protect you from the evils, donít you boy? Otherwise we would live in a land of death and ugliness, just like the rest of the world." The old manís voice grew louder, taking on a bitter edge. "Evil magic! Magic that tore the world. Shredded the skin of the planet and unleashed the fire demons that rolled like a river of death from the cracks in the earth. I seen magic. I seen a manís blood boil like liquid iron, and skin melt from bone. I seen swords made of lightning, and forest burn and rivers freeze. I seen magic like that. I know of wizards that could tear away your mind and put in their own thoughts so you wasnít yourself no more. I know magic."
Gregor stopped, his face red and flustered. The only sound in the inn was the crackle of the fire and the bubble of stew cooking. "So you say thereís a witch in the South Woods, Samuel?" the old man asked finally.
"Yes, milord," the boy answered. "Thatís the story the soldiers told."
Gregor nodded. Sweat beaded on his lip and he narrowed his eyes. "Boris has had their share of witches in the past, Samuel. This town is filled with magic. Did you know that?"
The crowd muttered. From the back of the room someone shouted, "Quit your lying, you old bastard!" A few of the miners stood up and wandered to the bar to refill their drinks. But Gregor just waited, taking another deep drink of his ale. The grum began arguing over their tea, their shrill voices squeaked like children. A log burst in the fire, falling to the flame in a cloud of sparks.
Samuel just shook his head and rubbed his fingers along his cheek nervously. They were long, graceful fingers. The fingers of a craftsmen. His parents were the finest weavers in all of Boris. "What do you mean, Gregor?" the boy asked.
"You can find magic in Boris, if you know where to look," Gregor said softly, taking a seat beside Samuel. "Itís just that no one chooses to see it." He refilled his ale and stood up, groaning as his weight strained against the knotted rope around his waist. "You want to know of magic?" he shouted, his deep voice breaking through the noise. "I will tell you about magic. Old magic. The magic of witches. Witches here in Boris."
The noise from the crowd died. Mutters and voices faded till the only noise came from the kitchen and the crackle of fire. Eyes turned to Gregor standing at the front of the room. "There was a witch that once lived in the South Woods," he said. "A beautiful witch, with hair like fresh fallen snow and eyes the clearest blue of a summer sky. A Corvenian, she was. Her father was a merchant killed by Myrian bandits, so the girl was raised here in Boris." As he spoke, his voice filled the story with life, and the audience began to forget the old man telling the story as they began imaging the tale he told.
The sun had set outside the shuttered window of The Golden Wheel, and filled the streets with night. Gregor paced before the fire as he spoke. "Corvenians," he explained. "Are tainted. Evil. They are addicted to the very magic that destroyed our world. It poisons them." He sneered.. "Like a disease, it eats away at the reason and logic." The crowd muttered as he spoke, many frowning and shaking their heads sadly. "This witch, despite her new home in fair Kalimura, was just as corrupt as any of her people. Magic was her birthright. Legends say she could speak with animals. Or summon magic lights in the air and create glamourís that fooled the eye." More scoffs. Gregor raised his hand. "But the witch was also a healer." His voice grew soft. "The finest healer in all of the Iron Hills. With gentle hands she could set a broken bone and make it new. She knew the plants of the forest and their secrets. There wasnít a fever she couldnít break, or a sickness she couldnít cure. And maybe it was magic, but she shared her gift with anyone that came to see her. When a child was ill, with the cough, or boils and lesions, the townsfolk knew they could see the witch of the South Woods for a cure. Thatís why they let her stay, despite her dabbling in the forbidden arts." Gregor paused, leaning back on the mantel above the fire. "Until the witch of the South Woods met Malcolm Eldegast."
Gregor turned back to his ale, taking a deep drink till the chilled liquid dribbled over his rounded cheek and down his shirt. The crowd muttered. The old men at the bar began arguing. "Who?" asked a boy sitting beside Samuel.
"Malcolm Eldgast," Samuel whispered. "Was once the Master of the Technomancers guild in Boris."
"Yes he was," Gregor continued, putting a hand on Samuelís shoulder. "A cold man. Logical. His mind like a steel bar, rigid, uncaring, unbending. He had no patience for magicians. Magic at away at the rules and reason that Malcolm Eldegast loved so dearly. The witch was everything the technomancers hated." Gregor sneered as he spoke. The crowd had turned to look at him again. "Eldegast lived as the perfect technomancer, and perhaps he would have tinkered in his workshop with new metals and fabrics till the end of his days, if not for the witch of the South Woods."
Gregor ran his hand over the mantel. "You see, it was Malcolmís wife, Sascha that first brought him to the witch. She never recovered from the birth of their child, and as she grew more ill Malcolm refused to believe that anything more than science could help her. It was Saschaís sister who stole her from Malcolmís house and took her to the Witch of the South Wood." Gregor turned and balled his fist in the air. "Master Malcolm was in a rage when he learned what had happened and where his Sascha was. It was an insult to everything he believed in, to let his wife see a witch for a cure. If her fate was to be ill, and if normal medicine and scientific care could not save her, then why should she sell her soul to corruption and avoid destiny? It was an affront!"
He stalked across the room as he spoke, spinning the tale in the air with his hands and voice, a gesture punctuating each sentence. "He stole a horse from the Technomancerís Guild-house and rode to the South Woods. It was dark there, full of tangled vines and twisted trees that hid the hills in a choking embrace. Malcolm was a child of civilization invading the heart of chaos, a place where the old magic filled the very air. Kryalites, Shadow Wraithes, Shimmer Cats stalk the South Woods. Myrians hunt there for the ancient tombs of their dead ancestors. There Malcolm began searching for his wife. He wandered in the Hills, searching for his beloved Sascha and the damned Witch that had stolen her. He had stepped into the very world he hated, and he became stricken with grief and madness. Finally, after two days with his horse lame and Malcolm delirious with hunger, Malcolm stumbled on the cottage of the Witch. She gave him a warm place to recover, she healed his words and protected him from the horrors outside her door. She healed him." Gregor paused. "I suppose that was his sin."
He stared down at his ale. Sweat beaded on his forehead, glittered in the fire light. "What?" Samuel asked, standing up from his chair. "Stumbling on the witches door was a sin?" "Was Malcolm killed by the witch? Did she use her magic on him?" Gregor looked up. Samuel continued. "Thatís it, isnít it? She used magic. A spell. Turned his heart to stone."
"Perhaps," Gregor nodded. "What happened in the cabin with the Witch, Malcolm and Sascha, really doesnít matter. No one but the dead know the truth of it. Perhaps it was magic." He rubbed his eyes slowly. "Perhaps it was just a lonely girls chance at companionship. Alone, deep in the woods with only the howl of the ekril, or the herds of stone beaks as a companion. In her little cabin, kilometers from Boris, listening to the krallinarís howl at night, hiding from the Myrian hunting parties. The only people that visit you are sick, dying, and once you help them they flee just as quickly. What would you do if you were that girl, and a man collapsed on your doorstep?" He rubbed his chin as he spoke, and smiled sadly. "Or perhaps it was the beauty of her smile that corrupted him. A gentle touch to ease his suffering, so unlike what Malcolm Eldegast was used to."
Suddenly Gregor let his voice go soft, words whispered as if he feared to speak them. "Or perhaps it was Malcolmís first taste of forbidden fruit. He yearned for what he could not have. What would a man do if he discovered everything he hated was all he desired? A small taste of what lay beyond his knowing, his logic and bloody technology."
He turned back to the crowd in The Golden Wheel his voice again loud and crass. "Doesnít matter, for when Malcolm rode into Boris again, after a week in the South Woods, his wife was dead and the witch rode at his side, her arms wrapped tightly around his scrawny chest. A beautiful young witch with eyes the color of the sea, and it was clear to everyone what had happened. The witch had enthralled him, befuddled his mind. Malcolm Eldegast, the Master of the technomancers, his mind a weapon of pure logic and reason, was a victim of a witch. His vaunted intellect defenseless to her charm." He turned back to Samuel. "So you ask me, boy, if I know magic. Magic is pain. Magic is loss. It will destroy you at a moments notice. It will eat away at your weakness and turn you into that which you hate most. Beware of magic, or you may become Malcolm Eldegast." The shouts in the crowd had begun again, with the miners and technomancers the loudest, standing up, shaking their hands in the air and shouting their own crude endings to the story.
Gregor ignored them. He wandered over to a window with his ale and peeked outside, at the veil of smoke from the ironworks that choked the streets. The serving boy and the innkeeperís wife were passing out bowls of stew and thick slices of bread, while the innkeeper collected coins from the patrons. Samuel took a bowl of stew from the serving boy and passed over a copper coin. The innkeeper smiled. "Quite a story," he said. "Gregor knows how to tell Ďem, he does."
Samuel just nodded. "But what happened to..." he started to ask, but the innkeeper was gone, wandering over to the table of miners.
Samuel stirred his stew with a wooden spoon. It was greasy, and the meat stringy and full of gristle. The bread burnt on one side. The boy sitting next to Samuel spread stew on the bread and took a big bite, letting gravy spill on his chin. Samuel pushed his bowl to the boy and stood up. He walked through the crowd, eating and talking softly to each other, to the window where Gregor stood. The old man looked over. "Still curious, boy?" he asked. The glare through the slightly opened window cast dusky shadows over the wrinkles on his face. "Still want to know about magic?" The smell from the city made Samuelís nose burn.
"What happened to the witch?" Samuel asked.
"What do you think?"
"My father told me witches were banished," Samuel explained. "Any spellcaster, really. Their lands and possessions are seized by the technomancers and theyíre escorted to the border by the guard. And they leave, never to return." He paused. "But I just wonder how powerful this witch was, if she were so easy to capture. To let herself be led into the city and just be taken captive."
"Ahh," Gregor said. "How just and kind are Kalimurans? As if banishment were any less a mercy." He leaned on the edge of the window and looked out in the streets. "This witch had magic. She used it on us. And when we realized what she really was, we put her on trial. Malcolm Eldegast, the pinnacle of technomancer purity found her guilty of using magic for evil. He couldnít let such a creature live, not in his city." He took another drink of ale.
"And then what?" Samuel asked.
Gregor looked over at the boy. "Some technomancers believe a mage canít cast spells when theyíre bound in iron. She was shackled and taken to smelting cauldrons. With Malcolm and the council looking on, she was pushed into the molten iron and disappeared in a cloud of smoke." Gregor smiled sadly. "What did you think would happen with someone like her."
It was later that same night in The Golden Wheel. A grum was sitting by the fire playing music with a tin flute while a dwarf maid was singing. The miners were playing cards by candlelight and the serving boy was rinsing the bowls in a kettle of water by the fire. Gregor was sitting in the corner with a few of the other old man, talking softly and slurring his words over yet another pitcher of ale.
Samuel sat with the other craftsmenís sons at the bar. They were eating cheese on stale bread. Slicing thick chunks of cheese with a serving knife they left stabbed into the wood. One boy, a blue eyed youngster with soft skin and muddy brown hair, was spinning an empty cup on the counter.
"I tell you," Samuel muttered. "There has to be more to the story. My father said Gregor was once in the militia, and he earned a medal for tracking Myrian raiders. Perhaps he was the one who arrested the witch. Looked into her eyes and saw the evil. He knows more than he tells us."
The cup clattered to a stop against the plate of cheese. "I seen a witch once," the boy said, picking up the cup and spinning it again. "I seen a witch and a wizard in Orrojek. Queer ones. Theyíre taller than most folk, I figure, and they donít much talk like us."
"Gregor said she was raised in Boris," Samuel reasoned. "I wonder who raised her? Another witch? I mean, who was she?"
The cup banged against the knife and started to tumble off the table when the innkeeperís wife reached out and caught it. "The witch was named Muriel," she said, putting the cup behind the counter and wiping at the alcohol stained wood with a piece of dirty cloth. "A pretty thing, so I heard."
Samuel turned, a shocked look on his face, while the other boy pouted and reached for another cup with a toss of his head.. "You know the story of the witch? You say Muriel was her name?"
The innkeeperís wife ran a hand through the greasy strands of gray hair that peeked out of the scrap of embroidered cloth she wore on her head. "Aye," she answered. "Folks know the story. The records be in the technomancerís guildhouse. But my mother what told me the story."
"Tell me," Samuel pleaded. "Please."
The innkeeperís wife just shook her head. "Heís been like this ever since he first heard about the witch in the South Woods," the other boy said, filling the new cup with ale. "Something grabbed old Samuelís fancy. All heís been saying is witch this, magic that, ever since old Marcus the gatekeeper told us about the kidnaped girl."
"Gregor didnít tell the whole bloody story. Some tell he was a friend to the witch, or that she might be a Mirren," the innkeeperís wife said, sitting down on a stool behind the counter. "My nameís Bella. Donít get many of your sort in the Iron Quarter, so near the crucible. Smoke and sweat donít sit on fine clothes too well." She laughed.
Samuel smiled. "I just want to know what happened," he said. "Was she a witch?"
"Old Gregoríd know the whole story, but it seems he wonít talk," Bella told him. "He was on the town council once. He was a hero, a sword for hire, when time was kinder to him, and those are the sorts what deal with sorceries, so I hear, and maybe Gregor even knows some of the old magic, spells and such. Rumor has it thereís even elven blood in his veins. But that was his life a long time ago."
"Marcus told me if anyone would know a witch, it would be Gregor," Samuel said. He looked over at the old man, sitting near the fire where sweat made dark circles around the armpits of his shirt. He was eating bread, and the crumbs scattered on the floor around him. "I canít imagine what would cause a man too fall so far."
"Scandal, so I hear," Bella said. "He got a young girl with child and lost his seat on the council. I suppose there is a bastard Gregor in the town, but I donít know where. Drove him to drink, and no one would hire a drunken sell-sword. He was an adventurer for awhile, spent some time in the east, but he came back."
"What of the witch, Bella?" Samuel asked softly. "What can you tell me?"
The old woman swiped her dirty cloth on the counter and looked across the bar, a distant look on her face. Samuel waited impatiently while the boy next to him started spinning the cup again. The other boys were sitting at the card game, placing bets with each other. Finally Bella sighed. "I heard the witch was in love with another man," she whispered. "Malcolm wouldnít let the girl go, he was so filled with jealousy."
"I thought she put a spell on Malcolm?" Samuel leaned closer to listen.
"Youíre a fool!" she hissed. "She had magic, and maybe it was the magic Malcolm wanted. But love is its own magic, and this was pure love the girl felt. Why would she charm Malcolm? It was someone here in town what was bringing her food and supplies, stealing moments with the beautiful Muriel. What would she want with Malcolm?"
"Why couldnít the lovers be together?" Samuel asked. The cup had spun to a stop, but it lay there ignored. The boy was listening to Bellaís story.
"The town knew she was a witch!" Bella slapped her towel on the counter. "She was a Corvenian. If anyone married a witch, the town would know her for what she was and banish her. A healer in the South Woods they could ignore, but not a lady of the town." She paused and took a breath. "My uncle told me he had bore worms, and he could feel them under his skin, eating away, but the witch put her hand on his chest, muttered a few words, and the worms were gone. That was magic. Why, she even cured the scars of a rash he had when he was a baby, all with a touch and some talking. No one in Boris would admit to being near the damn girl, but she could cure. Half the town, my man told me, owed the girl their life. But she used magic, and we knew it, and she shouldíve been cast out, like all the wizards who cracked the earth. As long as she kept quiet in the South Woods, the town didnít give her no mind."
"Was she..." Samuel stuttered. "Did your uncle say... Beautiful, as beautiful as Gregor said."
Bella sighed and leaned her elbows on the counter. "He told me that she was beautiful like a summer day, and there were times when he closed his eyes and there she was, filling his mind. She was beautiful, and kind, but the men in town knew she was forbidden." She paused. "Most everyone knew that, till Malcolm came to town with the witch on the back of his horse. That was the problem. A girl using magic could be ignored in the South Woods, but one wrapping her pretty arms around the head of the technomancers? That couldnít be."
"She put a spell on Malcolm. That was why he took her into town, wasnít it?" Samuel asked, turning in his seat to look at the rest of the inn. The Grum had stopped playing the flute and they were arguing over money. Gregor was standing before fire again, half-heartedly telling another story about the Pirate Isles and a Kraken swallowing boats. The serving boy was filling pitchers with ale and the innkeeper was collecting more coin.
"There are many types of magic, boy. She could have put a spell on him," Bella shrugged. "But only in the way a pretty girl can cause hearts to race and men become love-struck fools. I told you, she gave her heart to another, but Malcolm wouldnít listen. His wife was dead, and there were those that said Malcolm may have helped fate take its course. But sweet Sascha was gone, and no one was surprised to hear she was dead. The problem was the woman he wanted to take her place was a witch. A pretty young thing that lived in the woods her whole life, suddenly marrying the head of the technomancers. A witch, with her ability to cloud menís mind, suddenly inheriting Malcolmís fortune, living in his huge mansion. My uncle told me there were doubts."
"Why didnít the witch flee?" Samuel tapped his fingers on the table. "If she were in danger, couldnít she just run away in the night. Turn herself into an owl and fly away. Why not use her magic?"
Bella leaned back and squinted into the candlelight. "They questioned her one night, but a few weeks after she arrived on the back of Malcolmís horse. She was living in his house, and at nights you could hear him shouting, and she cried herself to sleep at night." Bella stood and picked up the plate of cheese and bread. "Then Malcolmís house burnt to the ground. Burnt till there was nothing left but rubble and ash. She tried to flee that night, and ran into a town guardsman near the gate. The council thought she started the fire. The whole town was there, after they stopped the fire. Dark night, so my uncle said, cloudy sky and everyone standing there with torches, and they took the witch and held her in front of the whole town, accused her of burning the house, using magic to call the elements. She was crying. The town council was there, and they had Malcolm in manacles." She took a bite of the cheese and scraped the rest of the bread in a breadbox.
"I heard the old guildmasterís house burnt," the boy said. "And they built the new workshop on the ruins."
"Why was Malcolm in chains?" Samuel wondered.
"He was a lunatic," Bella said. "Screaming and crying louder than the witch. It took two guardsmen to hold him, it did. It was like they was having a trial for both Malcolm and the witch, and the town was just waiting to see someone executed. Malcolm said he loved the girl, but she was carrying another manís child. She Malcolm kidnaped her. Of course, no one would believe a witch."
"The witch was with child?" Samuel asked. He could imagine a little wizard baby, skin glittering with magic, slender perhaps, like an elf.
"So the story goes. Sarah, the midwife, told me it was true." She took all the cups off the counter and piled them in a bucket for the serving boy. "And the people say Malcolm was insane, chanting in a foreign tongue and completely out of his mind. The witch had stolen his wits. She was pleading for her life, saying she loved another and would leave town." Bella turned back and sighed sadly. "Thatís when it changed. When she said that, Malcolm became different. His love turned to hate, and he started calling for the witch to be punished. He accused her of setting the fire." She twirled a finger in her hair. "Can you see it, that poor girl standing before the town confessing her love, even in the face of danger? I mean, if she admitted to loving Malcolm, they would have let her go. No one accuses the guildmasterís wife of a crime. But no, she had already given her heart to another man."
"To who?" Samuel asked. Even the boy sitting next to him was impatient, leaning closer to the innkeeperís wife.
"I donít know," Bella admitted. "The guards and the council carried the witch off to the foundry. Malcolm was calling her a murderer, saying she used magic, demanding she pay for her crimes. The town went to bed, and the next morning weíd all heard the witch was gone. Dead. Body burned in the molten iron. Malcolm was sent to Orrojek to recover from the ordeal. But..." she paused, pulling the finger from her hair and biting her nail.
"But what?" the boy asked, impatiently waving his hand in the air.
"Well, Iíve heard rumors. Sone say that the witch wasnít killed. They seen her wandering the South Woods.. The miners say they see smoke near her old cabin, like someone still lives there. And, late at night not more than a year after it happened, my mother told me she heard a baby crying in the forest, and my mother never lied her whole life, honest truth." Bella leaned back, a mysterious smile on her face.
"Rumor," the boy said, taking back his cup. "Probably not much truth in the story. Certainly not enough to prove the existence of a witch in the South Woods." He started spinning the cup on the counter again.
"But what happened?" Samuel demanded.
"What do you mean?" Bella growled. "Iíve told you everything I know. Thatís the story."
"What happened in the foundry?" Samuel asked. "I mean, did anyone see the witch burn in the iron."
Bella sighed and looked around the room. "Well, the only people there was the council and a few guards. Most everyone alive back then is dead. My uncles been dead more than 30 years." She stopped, then grinned. "But like I said, if anyone would know, itíd be old Gregor."
"Why?" Samuel looked over at Gregor, just sitting down as he finished his story and reaching for another pitcher of ale.
"He sat on the council," she explained. "He was there, the night they killed the witch."
To make steel, iron had to be cradled in a heat deadly enough to burn away the impurities. Heat like dragonfire. The hotter the fire, the better the steel. The workers ran the foundry only at night, when the cool night air could channel away some of the heat. They worked late, creating the finest steel in all of Kalimura. The smell, the smoke and the heat from the foundries drove the rest of the city inside at night, surrendering the empty streets to the iron works.
It was late, almost dawn, and the workers were closing shop for the night as a cool rain from the ocean fell in a fine drizzle that chilled the night air. The Golden Wheel was preparing to close for the night. The miners were finishing the last of their alcohol, a few staggering drunkenly toward the door. The merchants were already asleep upstairs, preparing to start early in the morning toward the coastal road. The few grum left were finishing the last of the cold stew, haggling over the price.
And Samuel found old Gregor Mirren sitting outside the inn on an old barrel. He was slumped over, a wineskin carried in his hand. Deep in shadow, his stained jerkin seemed only a darker shade of night. He was humming to himself, watching the glare of molten iron from the foundry across the street. The barrel creaked when he turned. "I see you, boy," he slurred his words. "No need to bloody hide. I know what you bloody want to ask me."
Samuel stepped forward, around an old hound dog sleeping beside a broken rocking chair on the porch. "Itís just," he started. "Well, I talked to Bella about what happened that night...the witch and all, and she told the rest of the story. About Muriel, and Malcolm and the fire and then taking her to the foundry and the execution, and I was still thinking..."
"I know," Gregor said. "It was a long time ago, and she is so far away, but even now, I can sometimes see her." He shifted his weight on the barrel, the old wood creaking. "The way she would cover her mouth when she laughed, and drum her fingers when she was thinking." Thunder rolled through the hills, echoing along empty streets. "She loved the rain," he said, holding his hand in the street to catch the drops as they fell from the sky. "She loved Zellanfruit and Olmekian poetry. She used to study Pre-Sundering history and wander the forest at night, looking at the stars. And, dammit, I still see her when I close my eyes, or see the rain, and I remember again everything that happened even when it hurts so much." He looked up, his eyes suddenly clear like they hadnít been all night. "I didnít want to remember her."
Samuel cleared his throat. He knew Gregor had once been in the militia, an adventurer, a hero. "How... how do you know all this."
Gregor pointed down the street, toward the technomancers workshop. "That was where Malcolm Eldegast lived," he said. "That was where the city guards carried her the night she tried to escape. That was where we stood, the town council, and accused her of befuddling our technomancerís mind. She was so pretty, even with her tear-rimmed eyes and torn dress, iron manacles on her wrists because they thought that would mask her magic. But Malcolm was still a fool, still enthralled because simple iron couldnít hide obsession.
"ĎShe is mine,í he kept shouting. ĎI have given her my heart and she is mine.í Muriel denied him. What else could she do? And the town just stood there, watching it happen. And the midwife, a sweet girl named Millie, knew she was with child even then, but it could not be Malcolmís. The guildmaster knew the girl for less than a month, and Muriel was two months into her pregnancy. The midwife knew that."
"Who did she love?" Samuel asked, pulling over the broken chair to sit next to Gregor.
"Can you imagine the rage Malcolm must have felt? His wife was gone, and perhaps he did help her death. Then he meets a spell-caster, a witch, a woman he loves. He gives his heart to her. He becomes a foolish boy willing to give everything away for a woman. If he married the sorceress he would eventually be cast out of the guild, lose his gold and property, his position in the town government, and be banished from Kalimura. He would give it all away for her, and she denied him. What did he feel? Lust, pain, need? Did it hurt knowing she didnít have the same feelings for him?"
Gregor took a drink from the wineskin and continued. "To be rejected like that, before the entire town, drove Malcolm into a rage. He seemed a poor, pitiful, love-struck fool. He accused the girl of using her magic on him, making him a slave. He said she was in his mind... toying with him. She dealt in the old magic that shattered the world, that she caused the very illnesses she cured so that we would not banish her. He even told us that it was the witch that killed his wife." The grums stumbled out of the inn and started down the street. Gregor paused and waited for them to move out of earshot, then spoke softly. "Grief was heavy with Malcolm that night. The technomancer seemed a different man that night, and those of us on the council were willing to believe him. They declared Muriel a witch, and sentenced her to die in the very iron they believed kept her from casting spells.
"But that wasnít enough for Malcolm. We knew she was with child. The guild master demanded to know who was the father was. The child would be born with magic in his veins. What man had made himself impure by sleeping with such a creature? He would execute them both, end their evil in one night and keep Boris pure. He threatened torture to the girl, and what was the council to do? They agreed to execute her."
The old man was sobbing softly now, his breath quickened. Even in the dim light Samuel could see his face flustered. But still he spoke, as if the words were pulling themselves out, and there was nothing he could do. "Inside the foundry, still newly built, a glittering pretty technological death trap for the witch, Malcolm tortured the girl. He used hot knives, dipped in the molten iron, to scar her face and destroy her beauty. He let the knife linger on her hands, her skin sizzle and the iron pull flesh from bone, and her screams shattered night like falling glass."
Gregor turned to look at the boy, his eyes narrow points of darkness in the shadows of the porch. "Have you seen hot iron on flesh? It moves quickly when its white hot, blazing a trail of red and black across her arm, her back, the delicate white of her legs. It burns, skin bubbles, and as it cools it pulls at the skin it sear ripping muscle from bone, and as you watch you know the scars will be permanent. The smell was horrid, and it was even worse to know it was the girl sitting before us, the one we decided to execute."
Samuel gasped. In his mind he could imagine the blue-eyed girl he had learned about that night being tortured. The image he had created for himself vanishing at the thought of the liquid red iron covering her. "Malcolm was careful," Gregor said. "The girl didnít die, not while he was torturing her. She was awake, and conscious enough to speak, but she didnít. She just screamed until her voice became hoarse and all she could do was moan. But still, she refused to give the jealous man a name." He looked away. "And her lover couldnít save her, no matter how much he wanted to."
Gregor fell silent. He took another drink of ale, then coughed, as if the drink burned his throat. Samuel sat there, stunned. "So the witch was killed?" he asked.
Gregor wiped his eyes, then kicked at a piece of the broken chair. The wood spun into the street, disappearing in the shadows. "I told you boy, there are many different types of magic in Boris. Hate, love, loyalty, secrets. There is so much you may never know." His voice cracked as he spoke.
He turned to look at Samuel. "And even if she did live, her lover would never know the woman she had become. The city leaders would always be searching for her, and her lover who escaped. They would know who it was that left town to search for her. They were watching, for years. It was never enough for Malcolm, he lived his life bitter. So what sort of magic could her lover offer her?" He took another drink of the ale, then turned to walk away. His story finished.
The night was over. The foundry workers were making their way home, the red haze fading over the city and the roar of flame dulled to grumble. The fresh steel bars were being loaded on carts to be shipped to the craftsmen and blacksmiths to be made into the tools and weapons that Boris was famous for.
Samuel was making his way home. His mind lost in the tale of the witch and her magic. At once it was so beautiful, like the bards who could make coins disappear or knives dance in the air while they juggled, and so ugly. That was the witch of the South Woods. Like Gregor, each time he closed his eyes he could see her. Her face shifting from beauty to tragedy, skin pure, unblemished, then scarred and mottled, charred like a piece of old wood. His mother had told him stories of the wizards she met in the east, but her stories were nothing like the stories about the witch of the South Wood.
He passed the foundry. Around him the Iron Hills towered above, and along the hillside streetlights twinkled like stars. The foundry was a great stone building, made of massive stone blocks still hot in the chill rain. He passed the open gateway into the foundry, and from the corner of his eye saw a figure standing on a stone platform beside the crucible where the workers skimmed impurities off the steel. Old Gregor, his figure bloated with age and his shadow huge, like a column of dark stretching from the iron works and into the street. He was humming a song, walking around the ceramic pit of molten iron above the furnace still blazing with heat.
"Gregor," Samuel started to say, making his way into to foundry.
And maybe the old man turned to see him, and maybe he didnít.
Gregor turned to the crucible, and with a casual gesture tossed the full wineskin into the molten iron. It arced in the air, then hit with a sizzle as the heat burst the leather and the alcohol evaporated in a cloud of steam. There was a hiss as hot steam filled the tiny room, swirling in a burning mist that stung the eyes and skin. Samuel gasped and turned away, covering his face with his cloak.
And when he looked up, Gregor was gone. Vanished. As if by magic.
This story was written by a good friend of mine, David Oeters, from Cincinnati. He was one of the first people to game in Khoras and has seen the world grow up over the years. This is his first Khoras short story. Hopefully, they'll be many more. Thanks, David.
This page last updated Wednesday, December 24, 2008. Copyright 1990-2009 David M. Roomes.