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Short Story - Sorrow and the Seith

Kureshi Ironclaw

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Hey all, I recently took a break from writing my current novel to write this short story. I was trying to work on evoking mood and theme with this one, while using a much more poetic and dreamlike tone than I would usually. It is set in the same world as my first novel, Prophecy of the Vengeful, but it is meant to stand alone and be read without needing any context from that book. I would appreciate it if some of you took the time to read it and fling some feedback my way.

Spoilered for length, and sorry the formatting is a mess from pasting it in.


Cold; the night was tenebrous as Sorrow stumbled through the swamp. The ghost in the moon cast his pale fingers through the gaps in the leaves, reflecting on the turgid water like atheling silver. Wet mud caked Sorrow’s trousers up to her knees – the bog seeking to drag her down, steal her boots from her feet – but she pressed on, each step a pop that released a foul odour long sealed in the mire.

            She shouldn’t be here. It wasn’t allowed. The men in the village had seen smoke rising from the centre again. They feared the Seith – the witch – that lived in the bog; when they were not spinning fancies of how beautiful she supposedly was, that is. But truly there was no proof that a witch did live in the bog. That was just an old story. What were real, however, were the ghostlights that lured young boyish fools to their dooms. Everybody agreed about that. Sorrow hadn’t seen one yet, though.

I’m no fool to chase ghostlights, Sorrow thought. She had come here with a purpose. Most people didn’t believe in the witch, but Sorrow did. Gran-nan had told her stories before she died of how young women used to venture into the swamp to seek the Seith, and apprentice with her in the ways of witchcraft and weyrcraft. It was said the Seith had profound rede that she would share with those she found worthy.

Sorrow hoped she was worthy. She had to be. She could not be spae-woman on her own merits. Everything was coming to ruin in the village – sickness rife – and Wyrlinde the old spae-woman had died before she could teach Sorrow anything of the craft. She wanted to help – she needed to help – but she did not know how without the witch’s help.

Clambering from the water onto higher ground, Sorrow grasped the mossy bole of a tree and peered into the darkness. An owl hooted somewhere ahead of her and crickets chittered all around. The moon-touch was scarcer here, and Sorrow could see naught but murky water and gnarled trees. Shadows were poised as if ready to swallow her.

Sorrow was afraid. She was willing to admit that. Even in the cold she sweated, and shivered even worse despite. There was no helping it, though. Hopelessly lost as she was, she had given up returning home long past. She would wander until she found the Seith’s home, or she would perish. Surely she could not long survive in here?

            A grey fog was rising, the breath of the moon upon the water that brought the dark horizon closing in. The shadows played mayhem with Sorrow’s mind; each branch the gnarled fingers of a draug that clawed for her. The patterns of leaves and weeds twisted faces that chased her with baleful stares. Sorrow forced herself to breathe calmly. It was all imagination.

            Her hand came away from the bole slimy and she continued in the direction she had been heading. She didn’t know which direction it was. She hoped it was south. The phantom smoke always rose from the centre of the swamp, and that was directly south of the watchtower in the village. Though now she would have no hope of seeing that smoke for this eerie fog.

            Her brothers would be wondering where she was. By this time of night Sinfjotli would have been woken by his night terrors and sought the comfort of Sorrow’s bed. Sigyr would have followed soon after, disturbed by his brother’s absence. They would have found her mattress vacant. Perhaps at first they would have put on brave faces, believing her just to the lavatory, but soon the unease would have got to them and they would have run to Father.

            Sorrow could picture now her father mustering just enough strength to haul himself from bed and onto his feet, then stumbling the short distance to her room. Upon seeing her empty bed, he would have sighed in that way old men do when they lose yet another thing from their waning lives. Sending the boys back to bed, he would have collapsed on her mattress, too weak to return to his own room. Sorrow liked to think he would let himself cry then. Just a little.

            But that was only if he got out of bed at all.

            There were tears in her eyes now. Sorrow raised her hand to wipe them away and gasped at the sight of a huge, black spider perched on the back of her fist. She waved her hand to dislodge it, but it clung tight and began to scurry up her arm. With a yelp she brushed wildly at her sleeve with her other hand, stumbling backwards in her panic.

            Her fit ended as her foot turned on a submerged root and she splashed into the bog, coming up muddy and stinking. She brushed her filthy hair from her eyes and stood frozen, her pulse thrumming, watching for any sign of the spider; waiting for any sensation of it crawling on her. She felt nothing, and her pulse slowed.

            It was just a spider, Sorrow scolded herself as she shook herself and continued. Still, just because she was the only one brave enough to kill spiders at home, didn’t mean she wasn’t afraid of them.

            The moon’s ghost was fading and the fog growing thicker. Sorrow ducked low between the arching branches of two trees and came up with her face just short of another enormous spider. This one was the size of her splayed hand, golden and bulbous; crouched hungrily in the centre of a complex web spanning between branches that shone with droplets of dew. She backed away slowly, barely breathing, not wanting to think about what would have happened if she’d walked straight into it.

            Sorrow turned to her left, but had only taken half a dozen steps before she came upon another web. With a curse she spun but found another web blocking her from behind. She seemed to be able to see further through the undergrowth now, but all she could see were dozens of webs lit by the ghost’s mocking light, framed by shadows sinister. She edged around them, but even so, more spiders floated down before her on silken lines to spin more webs to snare. Some of the spiders, instead of swinging between boughs, landed upon the water and scuttled on its surface to hunt mosquitoes. Sorrow hastened by them all with gritted teeth. She yearned to look up and see wherefore they fell, but she feared that they would fall into her eyes and nest in her nose.

            A girdled halo of moonlight shone upon a pond ahead and Sorrow hastened towards it, sloshing wildly in hopes the turmoil would keep the spiders at bay. She entered the ring of moonglow and looked up. Here, uninhibited by the trees, the night was star-bright. The moon was visible, and so too the ghost that lived within it, swollen to fullness. She almost believed she could see to the haven beyond the moon, where the souls of the dead rested in the ghost’s care.

With a sigh, Sorrow basked in its veil. It was easy to forget she was up to her waist in muck as she pretended she was back in the watchtower with her brothers, telling stories of weyrfolk and wargs as the moon hung full overhead. Father would have known what they were doing and where to find them. He would have come near the tower when it was their bedtime and howled, his keening voice echoing through the town. Sinfjotli and Sigyr would have cried in fear and huddled closer to Sorrow. She would have whispered to them that they were safe. The weyrfolk only stole away naughty boys, and they were good boys. So good.

            Blinking, Sorrow looked down into the moon’s bright reflection. Her silhouette was dark against it, a wisp like a ghost itself. As her eyes adjusted, she saw her hair writhing as if in a wind. Peering yet closer the writhing resolved into spiders and Sorrow screamed.

            She shook her head to throw them loose and battered with her hands, fearing less that her hands should be bitten than that they might continue to crawl in her hair. Black shapes tumbled from her head and down her shoulders, plopping silently onto the water and scurrying away. Biting down on her screams, lest the spiders should find a way into her mouth, Sorrow watched them flee into the dark as she continued to wrench at her hair, willing enough to tear it free at the root if the spiders would go with it.

            Those few fleeing spiders were overrun at the edge of the moonlit halo by a horde of spiders charging the other way. They came out of the dark in a furry frenzy of legs, thick as carpet upon the water’s surface. Unable to suppress it any longer, Sorrow screamed and fled.

            She splashed wildly through the swamp, heedless of direction. Stumbling multiple times, she had to give up tearing at her hair as she caught herself on slimy boughs. The spider horde was overrunning her. And even more were sailing down from the sky on silken lines. She crashed through webs suspended before her, swinging her arms to destroy them before they could touch her face.

Other shapes moved in the shadows. Dark things half-seen in the wereglow of the moon, white eyes baleful pinpricks in the gloom. Sorrow’s shirt snared on a branch and it seemed a draug had caught her, its desiccated face cackling at her until its skeletal fingers snapped.

Spiders covered the water, so Sorrow sought high ground. She would not brave the trees, for they snatched at her with arms draped of webs, but she found what once may have been a barrow mound and clambered to its top. The grass on its crown was melted and sickly, mushing into a paste under her hands. She slipped and rolled coming up with her back to a hard stone, staring deep into the darkness.

The swamp shook in a phantom wind that howled from a maw of shadow and stirred the fog into clamouring wraiths. Trees melted and decayed into pulp before Sorrow’s eyes, those creeping shapes prowled closer. One materialising into a ghostly night cat that stalked towards her, framed under the thrashing arms of two willows. It’s pale, pupil-less eyes sucked Sorrow in so it seemed all that separated them was the reach of a claw.

The cat’s face split into a shining grin that widened too far, its black lips dripping tar. It was not a cat. It could not be a cat. More narrow, white eyes opened on its head. Filling all the space not occupied by its mouth, even down to the chin. Each stared white as balefire, hot with malice.

Sorrow could imagine it growling, but she could hear nothing over the pounding of blood in her ears. The air behind the night cat split vertically, opening yet another eye. This one with a pupil so bright Sorrow had to squint. Black tentacles lashed out of the eye, whipping around the cat.

“Back!” Sorrow screamed, her voice splitting in terror. “Back, Seith! This is illusion! Stop this conjuring!” It can’t be real. It can’t be.

The night cat stalked closer. The tar dripping from its lips turned the water in the bog to ice under its feet, freezing a pathway across the pond to the barrow. Sorrow looked away – she could bear the sight no more – and saw a frail orange glow far in the distance, nearly unnoticeable because of the harsh light cast by the night cat’s glare.

A ghostlight, Sorrow thought with dread, but anything was better than facing this foul summoning. She lurched to her feet, slipping and sliding down the barrow and fled under bough and bramble towards the light.

She did not know if the night cat followed her. Did not know if the horde of spiders skittered in her wake. Did not know if the trees’ draug arms swiped for her as she passed. The ghostlight became her beacon, beckoning her onwards with its frail orange glow. She felt like she ran for three days, but no sun rose upon her and it seemed not that the moon carried the ghost any further across the sky. She found naught on her flight – the light never growing closer – and eventually collapsed onto her hands and knees in freezing water.

Sorrow convulsed, sucking frigid air into her aching lungs. She wept and shivered. Vomited and screamed. Unable to calm herself until her voice was raw and her eyes stung. She looked up and saw she was no longer hemmed in by drooping trees, but was at the edge of an expansive marsh. Odd – she had never been able to see a marsh from the watchtower. She must be further away from the village than she thought.

The ghostlight burned ahead of her, distant and shrouded in the fog. Separated from her by an expanse of still water that she would not dare cross. There was no telling how deep it was and what sort of sinkholes would suck her down to a watery grave. She looked over her shoulder but found a scene much the same. The swamp was nowhere in sight, and she was surrounded by water and fog as far as she could see.

How did I run here? Sorrow wondered, eyeing the water. It was glassy smooth, reflecting the moon and stars in a manner that made her feel like she was standing in the sky. Where she stood was ankle deep and solid, but Sorrow knew if she stepped anywhere else she would plunge down into icy black depths. She became aware that it was silent too. Now that her heart had slowed and her breathing steadied, she noticed the lack of crickets and frogs. Of owls, and even the bubbling pops of gases rising to the surface of the water. Am I dead? Is this what it is like in the haven beyond the moon?

A single ripple arced out of the darkness from the direction of the light.

It approached steadily, thrumming like a bowstring until it broke against Sorrow’s ankles and flowed on. In all the stillness she expected it to feel like a thunderclap, but it felt like nothing. After its passing, there was stillness once more.

Another ripple burgeoned from the black, breaking on Sorrow’s ankles like a dead breath. It was followed by another and then the silhouette of a small boat materialised out of the fog. A black cloaked figure hunched in the boat, its oar propelling it unnaturally across the water and sending further ripples towards Sorrow.

Sorrow stepped backwards but her foot found no solid ground and she stumbled with a yelp and a splash. The figure in the boat snapped its head up and fixated on her as she steadied herself on the seemingly narrow spire of land where she could stand. A flock of crows cawed in the distance. It was the first sound she had heard in a long while not wrought by herself.

Trapped as she was, Sorrow could only wait as the boat approached. The figure held her gaze but Sorrow could see no face within its hood. The boat glided smoothly to a halt several steps away from her and the figure set the oar across its knees.

Neither moved for a very long time. Sorrow was still with trepidation; the figure looked like it was still in lifelessness. Not even breath stirred the fabric of its hood.

Sorrow gulped in an attempt to work some moisture into her mouth and said, “can you take me across to the light?”

The figure cocked its head to the side but made not a sound.

“Please. I am lost and I am looking for the witch.”

With a slash of its oar, the figure spun the boat so it was side on to Sorrow, drawing it in slightly closer. Its hidden face still remained locked on her.

Sorrow shifted uneasily but took the apparition’s actions as assent. She stepped forward and her foot plunged into deep water. She windmilled her arms for balance and returned to where she was standing. “The water is too deep. Can you bring your boat closer?”

It scythed its oar again and the boat inched nearer.

“That is still too far.”

The figure reached out a pale hand beckoningly, showing clammy fingers fleshy and pink where callouses had burst. The tilt of its head bespoke sinister amusement.

Sorrow hesitated. The figure moved no further. I came to find the witch, she thought. If this thing takes me not to her, then surely she cannot be found. Gran-nan’s stories had never mentioned a creature such as this, but what other explanation was there for it than that it was in service of the witch?

With a deep breath, Sorrow stepped forward and plummeted into icy water.

            She thrashed as she sank through the blackness, choking on the putrid and slimy water. She did not know which way was up; did not dare open her eyes to try to navigate by the ghost of the moon. She just grasped wildly, hoping for a handhold. She had never learned to swim, much as her brothers had begged her to teach them. Nobody in the village could swim.

            A cold even sharper than the freezing water grabbed Sorrow’s wrist and hauled her upwards. She burst from the water spluttering, wrenched into the air by the apparition in the boat. Its frigid grip burned her and she bit back a yell.

            The thing loomed over her over the side of the boat. From this angle Sorrow could see faintly up under the cowl of its hood. The top half of its face, still mostly shadowed, had innumerable blank, white eyes staring out of nail wide punctures brutally hammered onto its pale visage; all over a wide, fleshy grin filled with rot that dripped tar.

            The night cat’s face.

            Sorrow shrieked and kicked away from the boat, but the apparition held her firmly, unerred by her feeble splashing. “Let me go!” She cried as the creature hauled her over the side and cast her into the boat.

            Landing hard, she scurried backwards to distance herself from it, nearly tipping herself back into the water. Maybe I should jump back in? Drowning can’t be as bad as facing this thing! The apparition ignored her, sweeping its oar back into water and setting the boat in motion with a lurch. Sorrow clung tight to the sides – she had never been in a boat before – her fingers blue and shuddering from the cold. The still night air bit at her skin cruelly as her sodden clothes dripped, but at least most of the mud from the swamp had washed off.

            Fog closed in and it hardly seemed they were moving at all, though the orange glow of the ghostlight now approached steadily through the haze. The ghost in the moon was shrouded overhead and it was almost as if they were floating in barren darkness.

            Gradually they drew close enough that the ghostlight resolved into an orange lamp shining at the end of a wooden jetty, suspended from a post that looked like a gallows. The jetty had a handrail that looked to be rotting away and led to a small island and up to a dilapidated house.

            The house looked abandoned, its veranda covered in shattered urns, torn open sacks, and decaying barrels. The stone walls of its lower level were slimy with mould and the wooden boards of its upper level looked as though they would fall to dust under a strong wind. Its windows were shattered and hollow, and the conical roof of the small tower rising from the second level was half caved in. If the house had been whole, it would have been a fitting abode for an atheling family. For it to have been built in the swamp at all displayed huge wealth; it was larger than the mayor’s house in the village.

Sorrow tightened her grip on the boat in fear that the witch was long gone. It looked as though nobody had lived in the house for decades. Perhaps the reason young women had stopped seeking the witch to train to be spae was because the witch had left. Or died.

Still, Sorrow considered, somebody lit the light. This could all yet prove to be illusion. She glanced at the apparition in the back of the boat. It had touched her. An illusion couldn’t do that.

The boat came to a rest, bumping slightly against the jetty. The entire structure groaned from the impact. Sorrow eyed it hesitantly. From this close, she could see that the light in the lantern was not of flame nor candle wrought, but a phantom light hovering in its dusty glass cage. The witch was definitely here then, though no smoke rose from the house’s thin chimney.

A grating hiss made Sorrow jump and she spun to see her eldritch ferryman leaning towards her, with its oar across its knees. Its hood had fallen back to reveal a bald head that looked to be made up of blank swathes of pale skin messily sewn together. Its filthy teeth were bared, black spittle spraying forth from its maw as it continued its harsh vocalisation, accompanied by a corpse-stink. The orange lamplight caught the blank eyes within the punctures and made them blaze as if afire.

Sorrow snatched the lamp post and vaulted onto the jetty; it felt surprisingly firm under her feet despite its creaking. The apparition quietened and Sorrow sighed in relief as she realised it was not going to chase her.

“Where will I find the witch?” She said boldly. She had come this far and it had not hurt her.

It grinned wide, black lips thinning until they looked like stretched leeches. But it moved not a whit further. Sorrow put her arms around herself and shivered, turning to face the house. It was the obvious place to begin the next stage of her search. She just hoped there were no more spiders.

When Sorrow turned back towards the end of the jetty, she found the apparition gone – boat and all. All that was beyond the orange light was black water and sky the same shade. The fog was gone but the horizon was indistinguishable in the gloom. There were no stars. There was no moon.

            Wracked of shivers, Sorrow walked up the jetty, leaving wet footprints and a trail of droplets behind her. She trailed her hand lightly on the railing, ready to grab it if the boards broke beneath her – though if that should come to pass she did not think the rail would help her any. She climbed the steps onto the veranda and approached the door warily. Boards creaked below her feet but other than that, no sound came from the house.

            Seeing no point in delaying any further, Sorrow rapped her knuckles on the door. Its rattle echoed through the hollow expanse of the house and dust flaked off its face to settle slowly onto the ground. Sorrow waited in the echoing silence for several seconds before shrugging and turning the doorhandle.

            “Don’t forget to wipe your feet,” a firm female voice said, seemingly from beside Sorrow. She jumped and looked around, her hand still on the handle, but saw nothing. No woman in sight. But that must be the witch. With a gulp, she wiped her feet on an entry mat she was not convinced had been there a moment ago and stepped into the house.

            It was like stepping into another world.

            The heat hit her first; warm and welcoming like the bonfire during Moonbane. The light hit her second; stark in its distinction from the ghostly colours of the mire. Where the swamp was grey-green and sickly, the interior of the house was lit in homely orange.

            Sorrow edged into the room, closing the door behind her. Fur carpets covered the floor and woven tapestries the walls. Herbs and trinkets hung from lines suspended between roofbeams – garlic, lavender, and holly. A fire blazed in a stone hearth at the back of the room with a pair of chairs before it. Sorrow went to it to warm and dry herself, passing a spiral stairway on her way.

            A vicious looking black arrow was displayed on the mantlepiece and above it was a weathered painting depicting a ring of grand tents atop a plateau. The window beside the hearth looked out onto dense swamp trees, and Sorrow’s skin prickled. Sinfjotli and Sigyr would have loved this house – there was plenty to explore – and their father would have at least not been as cold in it. She turned to warm her backside and nearly leapt backwards into the fire upon seeing a black cat staring at her.

            The cat was curled on one of the cushioned chairs and its face was blessedly mundane, though its expression portrayed feline vexation at her presence. “You’re just an ordinary cat, aren’t you?” Sorrow whispered. The cat flicked its tail. “Or perhaps,” she narrowed her eyes, “you’re the witch.”

            “A nuisance is what Mintaka is,” said the same womanly voice as before.

            Sorrow’s eyes snapped sideways to consider the tall woman standing by the staircase. She stood arms crossed, her long raven hair tied in a messy bun atop her head. Her forest green eyes weighed Sorrow in their depths, and her lips were twisted in a wry smirk. She was dressed in a colourful woollen robe that hung to her ankles, showing slippered feet below that. She was not as old and gnarled as Sorrow had expected of a witch, but neither was she as darkly beautiful as the men in the village claimed. All in all, the witch looked like an ordinary woman that was ready for bed.

            “Who are you, girl?” The witch demanded.

            “I’m from the village, Seith” Sorrow said, trying to keep her voice steady. “My name is Sorrow.”

            The witch blinked. “Not a name you were born with, I take it.”

            “Nobody is born with a name, Seith,” Sorrow replied, then snapped her mouth shut. Too bold.

            The witch raised an eyebrow. “Yet few ever seize the chance to choose one, and even fewer one so… histrionic.”

            Sorrow frowned. She wasn’t familiar with that word, but she wasn’t getting the sense that the witch had just given her a compliment. “What is your name?”

            The witch glided forward, stepping over to a table and grasping a kettle. “I am not so free with names, and neither should you be.” She bustled past Sorrow with the kettle and hung it over the fire, then gestured Sorrow at the empty chair. “Sit, child, I’m getting exhausted just looking at you. You are dry now, yes?”

            Sorrow nodded hastily and lowered herself hesitantly into the chair. All the fatigue hit her at once as soon as she was off her feet. She groaned. She must have been wandering and running in the swamp all night. How was it not morning already?

            “What shall I call you then?” Sorrow asked.

            “Seith is good enough,” the witch answered.

            The witch began mixing herbs into the kettle, stirring with a spoon, her back to Sorrow. Sorrow sat patiently, waiting until she had a chance to broach the subject of her presence here. A black covered book sat on a low table between the two chairs. Its cover was embossed with a single blue jewel and a ribbon stuck out of the pages just past halfway to mark where the witch must have read up to. Sorrow lifted the book and opened it. The pages were smoother and finer than any paper she had ever held – even finer than the Mayor’s books in his library, which Sorrow had had the privilege to handle when reading to the Mayor’s daughter, Torvhilde – but they were covered in unfamiliar runes.

            “Don’t bother with that one,” the witch said without turning. “It’s a load of drivel.”

            Sorrow flipped further through the book but there were no pictures to give her any clue as to what it was about. Just swathes of foreign runes. Maybe this book was from the north? She set it back where she had found it and twiddled her thumbs.

            “You have a very nice home,” she said to break the silence.

            “How do you know it is not an illusion?” The witch said. The kettle hissed at boil and she removed it from the flame, pouring steaming liquid into a pair of mugs.

            “Because I can feel the heat of your fire and smell the herbs in your tea.”

            “Perhaps it is a very good illusion.” The witch handed a steaming mug to Sorrow and set her own on the table beside the book, then wandered off into the next room. Sorrow frowned, considering the room with a fresh sense of doubt, but then decided she was being silly. Surely the witch could not fool all of her senses. She had seen spiders in her hair, she hadn’t actually felt them. And the phantom wind that thrashed the trees had never touched her. The witch was just trying to trick her.

            The witch returned with a plate of biscuits and set them on the table. “I’ll grant you this, though. These biscuits are as real as your own flesh.” She lifted the black cat out of the other chair as Sorrow suspiciously grabbed a biscuit. The cat bore the handling jadedly as the witch settled herself into the chair then set him in her lap. He mewed faintly and nuzzled against her hand as she scratched his chin.

            “So tell me, sweet Sorrow,” the witch said, fixing her gaze back on Sorrow, “why have you sought me?”

            Sorrow snapped her biscuit in half, dipping one end into her tea. “If it is alright with you, Seith, I would like to apprentice under you so I may learn the ways of a spae-woman.”

“Have you brought me tithe?”

She nearly dropped the biscuit. “I didn’t know I had to.”

            The witch snorted. “You didn’t have to, but it would have been polite. I live in a swamp after all; biscuits do not simply grow here.”

            “Sorry. Truly I did not know what to expect when I sought you.” She nibbled the soaked end of her biscuit. Its sweet offset the tea’s leafy bitterness.

            “Why seek me at all? Surely there is a spae-woman in your village who can teach you all the apocryphal remedies and ways of fate-reading that you need?” Her tone stung with derision. She plunged her own biscuit into her tea.

            “The spae-woman in my village died before she could teach me anything. I must learn witchcraft and weyrcraft if I am to save everyone else. I cannot fail.” She thought of her brothers and father.

            “Save them from what?” The witch looked into the far distance. The north-east, Sorrow thought, and frowned deeply.

            “The river runs with poison, though the men do not yet believe me. They have been digging and forging in the north, for there is tell of war, but the silt and grime flows down through the village. It is broken down finer than the eye can see by the time it reaches us, but I know it is still there, and I know that is why everybody is falling sick. It is happening in other towns too, but their spae-women know no solution.”

            The witch sipped from her tea. “And I suppose you think I do?”

            “You’re a witch.” Sorrow said simply.

            The witch shook her head. “What I am has lost all meaning, so therefore I am a witch to you. But what do you expect me to do? Teach you how to purify water? How to curtail men’s greed and violence? The solution you seek is not of witch or weyr.”

            “So you cannot help me?” Sorrow said, despair rising in her.

            The witch sighed and looked down into her lap. The cat looked up at her questioningly, so she scratched it behind the ear. “There is much ill with the world, sweet Sorrow.” She said slowly. “And it is not the responsibility of you or I to shield it all from the malice wrought by men’s hands. That is far too much for one woman to bear. It will destroy you, for we did not evolve to battle with problems so vast and existential. We can save only our small slice of infinity, one action at a time; to plant small seeds of goodness that they may grow and spread to those around us. And if you so choose to spread the wreath of your kindness and healing wider, well, that is noble; but know that you do not owe the world that much. It is hubris to believe you can save anyone but yourself from a threat man-made.”

            Sorrow set her tea down in disbelief, discarding her half-eaten biscuit beside it. “But what of the weak?” She cried. “Those that cannot look after themselves; my brothers young, my father old?”

“Are they not sheltered in your care?” The witch said, eyeing the crumbs on the table from Sorrow’s biscuit with disapproval. “And do they not care for you in turn?”

Sorrow flinched, and it was a moment before she could speak again. “What of those alone, then? The wargs on the fringe? The aged who have lost everything bar their selves? Do you say they deserve to die?”

“Nobody deserves to die. Yet die they may, and be it no weight upon your shoulders. You do not know these wargs you wish to shrieve.”

“I can save them.”

“You cannot,” the witch snapped coldly, setting her own mug down. “They are a concept wrought by your mind, as false as the foxfires of my dwelling and the ghost in the moon. Hypothetical wraiths that taunt your conscience with perceived need.”

“They are real! People living, breathing, that have gained and lost as you and I. Wayward though they be, they still deserve compassion.” Sorrow realised she was on her feet, looming over the witch.

“To some these wargs are real, but to you I think they are not,” the witch said, unflinchingly casual in her seat though Sorrow loomed. “People deserve compassion as much as they deserve death, but others than you will show these wargs kindness.”

“You speak of abandonment.” Sorrow crossed her arms.

“If that is what you have gleaned from my rede, you have misunderstood me greatly.” She lifted her mug and sipped again.

“Sometimes the duty of care is thrust upon us, witch, as with kings and mages. The powerful cannot flee from the wyrd that enshrouds them; they must face it bravely and shelter the weak under their wing.”

“I have told you already that men do not wish to be saved. They dig their graves over the course of generations and come to see them as homely. ‘Invader!’ they cry when you rescue them, kicking and screaming as you haul them out to safety. They are baleful of your efforts, thanks spat bitter if at all, and once your back is turned, sweet Sorrow, they jump back in the hole.”

“Men do not always know when they need saving,” Sorrow conceded. “They do not always give thanks. It is a thankless role, the saviour, true, but we do it not for their gratitude. We do it for them; as men are blind and cannot save themselves. They cannot see the hole they’ve dug.”

“You cannot assume that you know best. The pendulum of life and death, the pattern of the world, is larger than you or I can see. The ghost in the moon will wane and the sun close its eye on us one day. Tomorrow perhaps we will be the cold dust of death flung into the void; and if not then, perchance the next day. Nobody deserves death, yet death comes to us ware we will it or not. Nobody deserves compassion, yet it may find us in the end, for better or for worse.”

“I reject your rede, Seith,” Sorrow hissed, pointing down at the woman in the chair. “Though we may on an indeterminate day cease, that is no excuse for us not to care what happens on each day leading to our doom. Your words are those of despair, of somebody waiting to die, yet poisoning all around with your rotting philosophy so that they may suffer with you. Well if you so wish to die, step out into the bog and lie yourself in the mire until you sink into the cold, lonely barrow that you crave. And mayhaps as your head finally slips under the muck you will reach and cry for me to save you from the end you prescribed yourself; or mayhaps you will let the mud fill your lungs boldly, your descent aided by the weight of your stubbornness. I will save you either way, witch. Because though I know not better than you, and I know not when this world will end, I know that nobody deserves to die. And everybody deserves compassion.”

            The witch shrugged, forcing Sorrow’s finger aside with a casual sweep of her arm. “You can choose not to listen to me, sweet Sorrow. I’m just an old witch in a swamp. But mark this: one day you will be overwhelmed by your incessant desire to help everyone. It is too exhausting to be good forever; it weighs heavy on the self and eventually you will be crushed beneath it.”

“Maybe so,” Sorrow huffed, “but it still will have been worth being good every moment until I break.”

The witch met her eyes. “It is not a weakness to break under the strain of goodness. Only human.”

“That is just a lie you are telling yourself.”

The witch’s jaw tightened, and she looked momentarily to the painting hung above the mantel, then her fiery gaze turned back on Sorrow. “And what of the lies you are telling yourself? Saviour are you, Sorrow? You who abandoned your father and brothers this night?”

            “I did not abandon them!” Sorrow yelled. I did not. They were already…

            The witch stood, the cat leaping from her lap with a yowl, and straightened to her full height. Towering over Sorrow. “You think you can fool me with your name? Sweet. Sorrow. You think I do not know a lie when I see one? An illusion? You have failed, Sorrow, and no matter how many people you save it will never fill the well of your shame.”

            “Shut up!” Sorrow screamed, lunging towards the witch.

            She stumbled through empty air. The room was suddenly gone from around her and with it the fire’s heat. She stood in blackness scattered with stars and before her hung a blue sphere, covered in masses of green and brown. A black slash marred the centre of it. She recognised mountains and forests as if she was staring down at them like the ghost in the moon.

            “I am not your enemy, Sorrow,” the witch said from all around, but Sorrow could not see her. “I helped to save this world three times – three times, and yet I still must live in isolation for fear of man’s ungrateful wrath – but that is no solace against the worlds I’ve lost. It is okay to be weak, to let chaos reap its harvest, because all we save will come to ruin in the end. No matter what we do.”

            The blue sphere vanished, replaced by only an impression of itself in the starry background. No, Sorrow reconsidered; it was still there, but its surface was all mirrors, reflecting stars uncountable and void unfathomable so that it was almost invisible. The mirrors split and opened, and a truer darkness than any Sorrow had ever seen spewed forth.

            The scene faded and Sorrow found herself back in the witch’s house, panting before the fire. The witch sat in her chair with her legs folded beneath her, sipping her tea and eyeing Sorrow steadily. “You may stay here if you wish,” she said. “I will teach you what I can. It is not so bad as it seems, to live in this swamp.”

            Sorrow stepped away. “No. No, thankyou. I don’t think the lessons you want to teach are the ones I want to learn.”

            The witch shrugged. “Some lessons need to be learned whether you want them or not. Remember my rede.” She lifted the jewelled book off the table, flipping it open to the page marked with the ribbon. The cat slinked out of the shadows and hopped back up into her lap. Without looking up she added, “Head straight out the door and follow the path. It will lead you back to your village.”

            Sorrow opened her mouth to give thanks – or perhaps to argue further – but closed it before uttering a sound. The witch was already ignoring her, immersed in her book, so she turned and left the fire behind, stepping out onto the veranda and into the cold. The jetty was now a short bridge leading over a small pond to a path that wended through the trees, with no ghostlight burning at its end. Sorrow walked across it and then turned to look back.

            She saw the house in all its glory. No mould on its stones and the tower whole, with orange light blazing from its windows and smoke rising from its chimney, framed by enormous green trees. Through the window by the door Sorrow saw the witch not reading, but staring pensively at the painting above the mantel. After Sorrow blinked, she saw only the house as she’d first seen it. Hollow and broken.

            With a sigh that turned to mist in the air, Sorrow turned her back on the witch’s house and headed down the path.

            She emerged from the swamp far sooner than she anticipated, climbing the embankment into town with dawn’s rushing light by her side. The wooden watchtower loomed ahead, though nobody called out to her and she could see no movement in its crown.

            Her pace slowed as she crested the embankment, feet weighed down as if by stones. By this time in the morning, people were usually up: the smith to forge, the baker baking. But the town stood as if abandoned, the light of day only making its emptiness starker.

Sorrow passed the mayor’s house, smaller than the witch’s and with its garden wilting. Vacant it seemed. The groundsman not risen, and the mayor’s children not at play with the morning butterflies.

She passed the spae-woman Wyrlinde’s house. The windows were open, the cool breeze stirring the herbs hung from the woman’s ceiling. But naught more moved. No grind of pestle and mortar. No rhythm of incantation.

Shaking, Sorrow approached her own home. The door was ajar, squeaking as it rocked on its hinges. She never had gotten around to oiling them. It wailed as she pushed it open, stepping into the crammed corridor within. Cold it seemed, and dry with the dust that had finally won the war of attrition it had been waging against her for years.

She found Sinfjotli and Sigyr where she had left them. Clutching each other in their bed. Eyes squeezed shut, in pain forevermore. No more life in them than when she had fled the house the night before. No less.

Sobbing, she stumbled to the next room. Her father rested on his back, in the position that hurt him least. The position he had spent most of his time in since mother had died. But even he had been found in his final moments by coiling pain, his teeth clenched in a rictus snarl. It was all so much worse than she remembered – the pain more acute with the knowledge that he quest for the witch had been for naught.

Sorrow collapsed against the bed with a keening cry, her hair brushing against her father’s cold hand as she pulled her knees to her chin. “I’m sorry,” she sobbed. “I’m so sorry I was not enough.” She chewed at her fingernails, her tears hot on her face. I want mum, she begged in her head, body too shaken for words, but she knew she would cry alone, with no one to comfort her as she had comforted the little boys on their voyage to the haven beyond the moon.

Clutching herself tight, Sorrow wept herself ragged, her eyes aching like gaping wounds in her face. Much later, in silence wrought by her exhaustion and despair, she heard small footsteps approaching down the hallway. Blinking tears away she looked to the door and saw a young blonde girl stick her head into the room.

“Siara? Is that you?” The girl questioned.

Sorrow shuddered at the touch of her name. “Yes. It’s me, Torvhilde,” she answered blankly.

The girl ran across the room and fell into Sorrow’s arms, grasping her firmly and heaving with breath. “I’m so glad you’re okay, Siara.”

“Where is everybody else, Torvhilde?” She rubbed the girl’s back. She already knew the answer.

“They’re… they’re all…” Torvhilde shook.

“Shh. Hush. Hush. It will be alright, Torvhilde.”

“Are you sure, Siara?” Sorrow’s shirt was soaked through with Torvhilde’s tears.


“How do you know?”

Sorrow squeezed her eyes shut, forcing back her own tears and her own despair. All the witch’s words tolled a knell in her head; her rede of despair was so much more tempting to embrace now. Sorrow’s greatest desire was to stay by her father’s side and cry until she joined him and her brothers in the haven beyond the moon; she could not bear the thought that she might be hurt like this again. She couldn’t lie to Torvhilde and say that everything would be okay. Nothing was okay. Sorrow had failed. Her brothers and father and everyone else in the village were dead. The witch had been no help and Sorrow didn’t know what to do!

Torvhilde clutched Sorrow, shaking with the desperate need for reassurance that they both felt, and oddly enough that made Sorrow feel a little bit better. Nobody was here to help them but themselves, and that was where the witch’s words fell apart. There wouldn’t always magically be another person to help someone in need. It was selfish to turn a blind eye to a problem believing it was somebody else’s issue to deal with. Despair and apathy would only condemn them both; and condemn anyone else in need that Sorrow might find in the future. Torvhilde did not deserve to die because Sorrow was too traumatised to help. She needed to be stronger than that.

“How do you know it will be okay, Siara?” Torvhilde begged.

“I…” Sorrow began, but her voice cracked. She swallowed and began again, hugging Torvhilde close. “I visited the witch. She told me what to do.” It wasn’t a lie. The witch’s rede had contained some useful information. It would not be easy though. The solution was not of witch or weyr.

Torvhilde’s shaking stilled. “What must we do?”

Siara opened her eyes and met the young girl’s hopeful gaze. “We must find clean water,” she said. “And we must convince the men in the north to stop their tainting of the river.”

Standing, Siara lifted Torvhilde to her feet and led her out of the village.


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