A Witch in Love
|Emma figure courtesy of David Pasco|
A crowd was gathering at the center square with the snake handlers and baboon profiteers, where the baby ibs ran aimlessly. Thelana stepped out of her tunic like a bathrobe, placing her sandals beside it. Onlookers stared aghast, with laughter, in mocking whispers; a few shouted, “Whore!” But she remained oblivious to their jeers, continuing her routine of stretching. The red-haired woman was equally surprised, throwing her an inquisitive look.
“Oh, um, I fight naked,” Thelana explained with an awkward smile, pulling the sole of her foot against her cheek. “It makes me more agile.”
The midday sun cast a warm glow over the Ilmarin’s shoulder, and the two stood eyeing one another, opposites in almost every way. Thelana looked diminutive in front of her, a muscular waif. The warrior maiden was tall and shapely, heavy of hip and bosom. But the difference in their demeanor was even more striking. To the aristocratic spectators, Thelana was more animal than woman, hunched low with heels lifted, like a battle cat ready to pounce, a single braid dangling between her bare thighs. Her adversary, on the other hand, stood tall and proud, her arms slack against her sides, a sarcastic grin on her face, her bracelets and arm bands intricately embroidered, matching her knee-high boots, plated brazier, and skirt of gold.
The little Ilmarin was confident of the other’s misplaced pride, so confident that she awaited the first blow. As the edge of the halberd flew at her neck, she glided and rolled, crouching safely to a flanking position; she could have followed through to an unshielded rib, but it would have been a fatal blow, and she did not wish to kill the stranger who had done her no harm. But Thelana was ignorant as to the other’s willingness to kill. With the halberd positioned for a second attack, Thelana was back on her feet. Down came the ax-head, clumsily and with a groan from the warrior maiden, as if to split her foe like a log. Somersaulting away, the Ilmarin proved too swift, and in this way she continued to toy with her assailant, like a squirrel chased by a woodsman. The armor-clad woman soon lost her composure, panting in unladylike fashion, slouching as she neared exhaustion. After a long minute of near misses, Thelana decided to end the embarrassing ordeal in the most humane way she could think of. With a twist of the wrist, the link keeping the redhead’s brazier together split against Thelana’s sword. The heavy garment went clanking to the ground and the warrior maiden’s face flushed as red as her hair. Shielding her pale bosom with her arms, she turned and fled as the delighted onlookers laughed in her direction. Victorious, Thelana let out a broad smile. Humane, yes, and humiliating. What’s more, she’d won a prize, lifting the golden brazier into her backpack before anyone could seize it.
Much of the crowd pressed about her now, but Thelana was not about to stand like some exhibitionist pandering to the fancies of the male, and perhaps even some of the female, audience. She snatched up her tunic and concealed herself again, blending into the modest crowd.
Only the children, whom she could tell were of the lowest class and who had not been shooed off by their parents, refused to leave her side. The boys mimicked her maneuvers while the girls marveled in silence, never knowing that a peasant could grow to become so fierce and able a fighter. In their hungry faces she saw younger versions of herself, and could not turn them away. But she could not afford to attract more notice. Quietly, in an alley where the impoverished went and were forgotten, Thelana appeased the children with the tale of how she slew Moontalon, a black dragon, and as young children are oft to do, they listened dreamily and without skepticism.
Far from the entertainment at the center square, Emma found herself lost amidst a plethora of objects. The bazaar was no less mesmerizing for her. Every object was crammed into narrow passageways. If she were to stand with both arms outstretched, she would have touched either wall. What was more disorientating was the absence of architectural planning. The walls snaked along the streets, devoid of any pattern. Even the ground was made of uneven stones. She would be trekking uphill one moment when suddenly the street would dip downhill. Chandeliers clustered about her like bronze vines. Tables chafed her thighs, laden with ceramic vases and ornamental plates, elegant oil lamps, shining teapots and glass-stained hookahs with swirling hair-thin lines. There were fine jewelry boxes of lemon wood, hand drums and belts and shoes and djellabahs and keshabahs, rugs of reds and royal blues. The jewelry was handmade by the shopkeepers. No two markets were identical. At times, Emma held her breath lest she choke on the dust from items that had sat for years without so much as a smudge from a customer’s finger.
Emma did not see anything that interested her, for the only real thing she desired was to eat something other than an insect or a lizard. The bazaar lacked in nothing, and her nose eventually led her to a vendor of spices. Salt! What I would have given for a month of salt! Across from the first vendor, another tantalized her with cashews, dates and dried figs. Off in the corner, where the street widened, a whole boar roasted slowly over a flame.
“Merchant!” she called towards the man with the fruit cart, “have you anything special today?”
He gestured to a small basket of black bulbs. “The hockenberries are in season, as are the watermelon-grapes,” he added, motioning her to the small pile of green and yellow-striped fruit.
“How are they?”
“The hockenberries? Eh, sweet at first, but leave a sour taste afterward.”
“I’ll take a grape then,” she said, but groping at empty pockets, realized her stomach had spoken out of turn. “Actually, I haven’t any coin on me.”
“For one so fair, methinks, one grape won’t be missed,” he replied.
Redness rushed to her all too-pale cheeks, and without so much as a gesture of gratitude, she snatched up the watermelon and popped it into her mouth. It burst in a shower of sweetness against her tongue, a welcome change from dry, salty lizard. “My apologies,” she replied, wiping her lips. “I’ll return with payment soon.”
But Emma had nothing of value with which to barter. She would have to wait for Thelana to return from the money changer. With all the sights and sounds about her, she then realized, she’d forgotten to find an inn for the night.
Again Emma was distracted, from a small tent in a less crowded part of the bazaar. A soft melody resonated from a reed flute of the same type stashed in her cloak. The music was out of place, not of the Endless Sea, but more akin to that of her home in the Pewter Mountains. It was an uplifting change and she found herself inexorably drawn, like the cobra to the flutist, toward the tent.
Emma stooped under the flap and looked inside, finding astrolabes, hanging beads, expired candles, shriveled animal heads, and organs preserved in jars, among other things. The lady at the center of the clutter looked as though someone had crumpled her face in a ball and then attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to straighten it. Placing the flute in the folds of her lap, the ancient woman smiled toothlessly and gestured for Emma to sit.
“Come in, my child, do come in. I don’t bite.”
“I am sorry,” said Emma, “I did not mean to disturb you. It’s just that . . . I play the flute also, and your music was so . . . so haunting. I just had to see where it was coming from.”
“Of course you did. Of course! Now please, rest your weary bones. I can see you’ve come a long way.”
Though her surroundings were unsettling, Emma was obliged to do as etiquette demanded. “Thank you.” She paused to think of something more to say, to break the disquieting silence. “Um . . . where did you learn the flute?”
“Oh, here and there,” the old woman said. “I just do it to pass the time.”
“Oh? So what is it you do here in the bazaar?”
“I do henna,” she replied, letting her long sleeves slide down to her elbows to reveal the intricate markings along her forearms, hands, and fingers.
“No!” she said. “Art for the skin, made from plants. Wears away after some cycles. Popular at weddings, here in Thetis, it is.”
“Oh, I see.”
“Would you like me to do some henna for you?”
“Well, I don’t have any money–”
“No matter!” said the decrepit lady. “You look like such a nice girl. Reminds me of a daughter I once had.”
“Once? What happened to her?”
“I outlived her,” she replied soberly. “I’ve outlived all my children, and grandchildren— it’s why I’m sitting here all alone in this foreign place.”
“Wait, did you say you outlived your grand–?”
“Give me your hands,” she insisted. “Or just one hand, please. It would make me so happy to sit a while with good company.”
“Well, all right.” Emma stretched out her left arm.
The old woman picked a small dish from a stack to prepare the muddy, dark green mixture. Starting with a line across Emma’s wrist, she peered intently through a single, bulging, yellow eye, inquiring, “So . . . do you have . . . a man in your life?”
“You mean a husband?”
“No,” she groaned, “I can tell you’re unwed. I meant . . . is there someone you love?”
The dark eyed sorceress blushed.
“ . . . or is in love with you?”
“Well, I am not really sure,” she replied uneasily.
“Not sure of what? Whether you love someone, or whether someone loves you?”
“Pish-posh! A woman always knows when she’s in love. And I can see it now, in your eyes . . .”
“You see it in my eyes? What?”
“The longing, the daydreaming, the sleepless nights.” She smiled mischievously. “I’ve been around a long time to know.”
“Well, I suppose there’s no use hiding it.”
The woman’s face fractured into a grin. “You have been hiding it from yourself, as well as from your colleagues, haven’t you?”
Startled, Emma looked at her now, mouth agape. “How do you know so much?”
“I guess you could say I am a lay practitioner of the mystic arts, or as some might call me . . . a witch . . . but I don’t like the sound of that. You don’t have anything against people with our special gifts, do you?”
“No, of course not, in fact, I’m a–”
“Don’t speak, my dear, don’t speak. I know all about you. What I want to know more about is . . . him.”
“Oh, him.” The blood rushed to Emma’s cheeks. “Well, he is a great man: honorable, wise, and full of courage . . . He is destined for great things.”
“But that is not why you love him, is it?”
“No,” she admitted, biting her lower lip.
“Is he handsome?”
Now Emma felt the walls about her heart, which she had so steadfastly guarded, suddenly collapse. “He is the handsomest man in the world,” she said adamantly. “And . . . and I love him. Yes,” she continued, reaffirming it, “I love him.”
“That’s wonderful, dear! Wonderful!”
“No!” she exclaimed, and her voice broke. “No,” she said again in a half-whisper, “it’s terrible.”
“Terrible? How can that be so? Love is never terrible.”
“Oh, but it is! Can’t you see? He loves another, and the other he loves, well, I love her also . . . like a sister. I could never come between them.”
“Ah, but do not despair, there is always hope.” The lady pulled away, and Emma could see the abstract forms crisscrossing her wrists and hands. It was beautiful, almost too beautiful. How could the feeble old woman have done it so fast? She hardly noticed the artwork come into being. Was this the result of some sorcery? As if in answer to her thoughts, the ancient witch leaned forward, murmuring, “My henna can sometimes have . . . special qualities.”
“You cast a spell on me!”
“Oh, don’t be angry. It’s a small thing, really. My powers are meager.”
“What does it do?” she asked, relenting.
“It speaks of your . . . possible future.”
“It’s a fortune?” asked Emma.
“In a way.”
“Then I want to know about Xa– about the man I love.”
Peering with that yellow eye again, more intently now than before, the archaic woman smiled. “You have studied the ancient books,” she intoned with sudden vitality, “you know the future is not definite, that it is a river with many branching tributaries, a maze of possibility.” She fingered a line across Emma’s palm, as if demonstrating just such a model. “To have what you desire, someone must die.”
The words struck Emma’s ears like daggers. “Die?” she repeated, and only one name came to mind. Thelana. Emma snatched her arm away. “It was wrong of me to come here,” she muttered. “I should have never–”
“I apologize,” said the aged woman. “I can see that I have upset you. I did not mean to. It is merely the future that I see.”
Standing abruptly, the younger sorceress rubbed her arm vigorously, as if washing away the blood of a murder victim, but the henna would not even smear. “When will this go away?”
“I told you . . . in a few cycles.”
“Can it be sooner?” she said, guilt tainting her voice.
“No. But it isn’t what’s on your hands that matters . . . the real markings, the true art of the self, is in you, is in your heart, and that won’t wash away.”