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Tales of Night Shade

Tales of Nightshade

 

by

 

Ledia Runnels

 

 

Cover Design

by

Ledia Runnels

using the altered photograph,

“Reluctant Host”

taken by

Philip Watts

(Flickr Creative Commons)

 

 

Copyright by Ledia Runnels 1991

 

 

 

 

Sweeping Cobwebs

 

 

 

 

It was the end of summer. A cool autumn breeze drifted past Brunda’s face as she gathered the herbs of the season. They grew wild in this meadow. A robin’s musical voice filled the air, but the bone-bent old woman never noticed. In less than three months, it would be All Hallows’ Eve, and she had much to do. She turned her eyes toward the western horizon where the sun began to settle. She gazed appraisingly into her wicker basket. Bunches of delicate plants, bruised from picking, filled her nostrils with pungent aromas. She nodded her approval before walking the short distance to her cottage.

Her front porch was old and rickety, much like herself. Roses entwined the colonnades. Affixed to the front door was a placard. Brunda shoved a stray strand of silver-tinged black hair from her forehead, and then ripped the paper from its nail. Her eyes widened in disbelief as she read it.

“This Property Has Been Seized by the County of Campbell. All Residents are Hereby Ordered to Vacate Within the Next Sixty Days. Signed, Jackson Appleby, The Earl of Campbell”.

Brunda’s voice hissed through the brambles. “Those Snakes. This is my land by right! How dare they try to take it from me.”

She crumpled the hateful writ in her claw-like fingers. The paper became a small fireball and was instantly consumed. She threw open the front door and closed herself in the silent house.

Her keen eyes pierced the gloom. Shelves of books and a long worktable filled one side of the room. On another wall of shelves, a hint of evening sunlight trickled through a small window, glistening off rows of glass receptacles. At her feet, the bony tail of Mandrake the cat curled about her ankles. The feline’s yellow eyes flashed upward.

“Did you read this, my kitty?”

The cat leaped onto his mistress’s shoulder. He pur-r-r-red, and rubbed against Brunda’s neck. He had read the awful news and understood its implications.

Brunda spoke through gritted teeth. “They’ll not get away with it. When I was young and foolish, they chased me from my Denhalpith. They threw rocks at my back and screamed all manner of evil names. But their hateful tactics won’t work this time. They’ll find them ineffectual as those of a childhood bully facing the giant Goliath.”

With a deliberate nod, Brunda stroked the cat’s sleek, black fur.

“They won’t win, this time, my kitty; not this time.”

 

At high moonrise, a cup of grog steamed on the splintery tabletop. Beside it, Brunda gazed past a massive book of magic that lay opened in front of her. Her eyes were fixed on the black nothingness that occupies a mind deep in thought.

“Fie!” she shrieked. “None of these spells will do.” Her fist came down hard against the tabletop. The grog and its cup were sent spinning against the wooden floor.

Brunda caught Mandrake up onto her shriveled lap. She said, “Once the deed is done, there must be no clue to draw attention this way. But so far, I have found no methodology that will ensure this.”

A sudden rap on her door jerked Brunda’s thoughts awry. A frown creased her withered face. Thin lips tightened grimly as she rose to draw back the latch.

In the golden moonlight stood Magwa, the head witch of the local coven. With a curt wave of her hand, Brunda showed her in. Magwa swept past the other enchantress with a crackle of black linen. Brunda gritted her teeth at the hateful sound.

Magwa turned her glacial gaze upon her hostess. “You know, Brunda, I never choose to meddle in your business. But it has come to my attention; all the coven’s request cards for your special herbs are being returned to them, charred to ashes. Can you tell me that not one of our assembly is worthy of receiving your Mark of Agreement? You know, I am merely concerned that something is … troubling you.”

A cold rod of anger bit through Brunda. She bit back the words, Truth be told, you are a busybody from way back, Magwa Witch!

Brunda kept her true feelings to herself, not from fear of the other’s wrath, but because her business was her own. She said aloud, “It is nothing! I just choose not to be disturbed at this time.”

Magwa’s red eyes narrowed to slits, two fiery orbs that stared sidelong. The grim determination was apparent on her homely face. Her arrogant challenge came as no surprise. “I hear even your own sister received a pile of ashes when she sent out her card.”

An irritated click fell from Brunda’s tongue. “Druzelle has gotten soft living in that village. She spends her time giving out love potions to sad-eyed youths and belladonna as a cosmetic to charmless girls. She has forgotten what being a witch is all about. I’ve no time to waste on her!”

Magwa reached up to stroke her knotted chin. “Yes, yes I can see how living too close to Christian folk could prove an undesirable thing. Have you heard about the witch hunts and burnings? It’s not safe to be suspect.”

Brunda guffawed. “Those fools are burning their own kind. Nary, a real witch, has been caught and put to their ridiculous tests. And nary a one will if the witch keeps her wits!”

Magwa nodded. Her expression was searching as if trying to interpret every gesture Brunda made for a clue to what the herb-witch was actually thinking.

Brunda saw through Magwa like thin gauze. She clicked her tongue once more in aggravation.

Magwa jerked her head toward the door. “I’m leaving now, Brunda,” she croaked. “but we shall all see you at the Sabbat, on All Hallows’ Eve.” The head witch’s words were not posed as a question.

The impertinent wretch! Brunda fumed.

A flash of smoke appeared as Magwa turned to go. But an invisible force held her frozen in place.

Brunda’s strident voice cut through. “Don’t forget, Magwa that I was asked first to be the head witch and turned it down.” Brunda’s eyes burned into the other ones. “I shall be at the Sabbat, but only because it suits me.”

The invisible grip released and Magwa found herself sailing pell-mell through the opened door. A puff of foul-smelling, green mist was all that remained of her presence in the herb-scented room. A wry grin spread across Brunda’s face as she watched the rank vapors swirl and vanish. With a wave of her hand, the door was slammed shut. She turned toward her table of books and flasks of dried herbs.

 

Hours later… Mandrake lay curled up in his corner by the hearth. He watched as intrigue glistened in Brunda’s dark eyes. They were locked upon an entry in her large recipe book, under the title, “Poisonings.” Its subject concerned an herbal toxin that was both tasteless and scentless.

“Listen to this… ‘Its only distinction is a gray-green color and knobbed shape.’“ Brunda traced a bony finger across the last words of the recipe: “‘leaves no discernible trace except that once ingested, victim is left quite dead.’“

Carefully, she marked the place before closing the massive book. She then sat thrumming her fingertips against the tome’s leather cover.

“If this spell is chosen, there’s still the problem of collecting all the necessary ingredients and figuring out how best to administer them. In all my years, I have never resorted to taking another person’s life, though many of my colleagues have and would do so again with little remorse. I would rather thwart the Earl by other means if other ways can be found. Still, I’ll keep this spell in reserve.”

In answer, Mandrake blinked his golden eyes.

 

It was the night before All Hallows’ Eve. The auspicious date and the moon’s alignment made it perfect for gathering some of the most elusive herbs available only at this time of year. The old sorceress took her wicker basket and disappeared into the night.

The forest seemed to hold its breath in anticipation as the witch and her cat entered its domain. A weeping willow tree bore its thin branches to the earth, pointing toward a mound just beneath its leaves. Here Brunda sank to her knees and began digging until she unearthed a root in the shape of a miniature man. Quickly, she wrapped the sod covered radix in a piece of cloth, bound it with twine. She placed it in her basket away from the other herbs so as not to spoil them with the man root’s noxious bearing.

“We are finished here, Mandrake.” Brunda gathered the cat up onto her shoulder. “Let’s be about our other business.” With her broom tucked beneath her and a swirl of black cape, Brunda was airborne, flying low across the terrain that surrounded her land.

Once she had reached the outer perimeter, she drew a small black pouch from inside her cloak, loosened the satin drawstrings and took a pinch of saffron dust between her fingertips. Every few feet she paused to sprinkle the stuff into the air while chanting incantations. Several hours later, when she had encircled the entire outer rim, Brunda replaced the pouch and flew back to her cottage.

The next night, as a full moon filled the sky, Brunda gathered several hemp bags full of dried herbs and loaded them onto her broomstick. Deftly, she boarded the narrow perch. Mandrake hopped up beside her. In an instant, they were airborne.

Beyond the forest, a bonfire flashed. Around it, a group of black-clad folk moved with the frenzied gyrations of wind-tossed leaves. Brunda guided her broom toward the shadows that clung to the forest’s edge. She dismounted and walked toward a cauldron where boiled a foul-smelling green mixture. She dropped most of her bundles to the ground and waited to catch the eye of a hag who stood close by.

Gerda was busy clapping her hands and tapping her pointed shoes in rhythm to the music. Sparks flew here and there each time her withered hands made contact with one another.

Brunda loudly cleared her throat. Gerda turned an annoyed face in her direction. At sight of Brunda, the other witch’s angry expression became a leering grin.

Gerda cackled gleefully. “Brunda, Brunda! You are here.”

Brunda replied. “Yes… but I’ll not be staying. Pressing matters draw me elsewhere.”

Gerda’s eyes shifted from side to side. “But Magwa…?”

Brunda thundered. “What about Magwa?”

Gerda watched in terror as Brunda’s faded blue eyes became two red disks of flame. Gerda raised her hand to her mouth and bit until a small trickle of blood appeared.

“Well!” Brunda drew closer to Gerda, who seemed to shrink in size with each step backward.

In a small voice, weak as a mouse, Gerda replied, “She … Magwa has been looking for you all… all night. She’s…” Gerda swallowed loudly, eyes darting in all directions. “Magwa is quite annoyed that you, you were not here.

Brunda, no!”

Gerda’s eyes had become two empty discs as Brunda raised her hand within inches of the other’s face. Slowly, Brunda lowered her hand until one bony finger rested upon Gerda’s short, pug nose.

Brunda’s voice was deliberately gushing. “But I am here.” Then it raised several octaves. “No one dictates what I do; not Magwa, not anyone! Do you understand?”

Gerda nodded vigorously.

“Good,” Brunda replied. “That is excellent, Gerda. I know you do not relish spending your days as a spotted hog or worse.” Brunda chuckled softly, and then pointed toward the bundles that lay in piles on the ground.

“These are the herbs everyone requested. Now I shall be going. Tell Magwa that I … stopped by.” Brunda gave a roar of laughter and turned toward her broom and Mandrake. A bolt of lightning flew from her fingertips, and the broom raised itself off the ground. Mandrake jumped lickety split onto its handle, and the broom drifted over to Brunda. She threw her leg over the handle, climbed aboard and was gone.

 

As her cottage came into view, Brunda slowed her pace and circled over the house. Then she headed toward the far edge of her land. Hovering near the wild herb field, she stepped onto the ground. She walked until she crossed the imaginary line where she judged her property to end. She turned and gazed across a small river that skirted the opposite side of her land. Earlier that day, the river had been almost a mile from this place. Now it lay at Brunda’s feet.

A whoop of joy rang from her lips. Her space-bending spell had indeed worked! Now the herb fields, her house and the woods that surrounded them would be hidden from all except the creatures that soared into the air. For only from on high could the land herein be seen as it truly was.

But Brunda did not have long to rejoice in her success. A sudden clamor rose from the western horizon.

The shrewd old woman turned to scan the area. The sky was lit as if by a glowing sunset, yet the time was just past midnight. The pungent smell of burning torches preceded a multitude of maddened town’s folk as they swarmed over the ridge.

The scream of a crazed citizen rang in Brunda’s ears. “It’s the witch; just where the Earl said we should find her!”

She watched the angry mob toward her and Mandrake. Shaken, but undaunted, Brunda reached up to stroke her cat. “Now, isn’t it characteristic of the old goat to use that weapon from his arsenal. Guess the Earl thought he’d make sure this old woman departed alive or dead.”

“Well, if it’s a show they want, then a show they most undoubtedly will receive!” she cackled. This time, Brunda’s laugh held no glee. It was, in fact, a horrible thing to hear.

She leaped onto her broom and flew high into the air. Poised some fifty feet above the citizens, Brunda sent a surge of fireworks into their midst.

Amid their screams of terror, she pointed her broom toward the western horizon and flew over the crowd and away into the night. She didn’t stop until the manor house of the Earl of Campbell loomed below her. Circling near the garden, she leaned down to untie the last bundle of herbs that clung to her broom. The pouch had the word SARAH etched upon it.

“It would take the simplest of spells to lure the Earl’s trusted serving woman,” she whispered angrily as her hand twitched against the string.

 

The moon hung on the horizon as Brunda flew over the place where the irate mob had been. The only signs of their passing were a few smoldering torches lying about the opened fields.

“Good enough,” she muttered triumphantly and flew directly home.

Later as she sat reading a book of magic, Mandrake drew her attention toward a crystal ball that sat upon the table. She scanned the orb’s smoky heart and found the image of the Earl of Campbell smiling down upon the writ that would make Brunda’s fertile valley his.

Brunda chuckled. “He is foolishly unaware of the latest turn of events, eh Mandrake?”

A smirk crossed the Duke’s face as he lay the parchment aside. He reached to take up a cup of hot tea Sarah had prepared for him. Holding the porcelain cup to his lips, he seemed to savor the warm vapors before taking a deep draught.

“Too bad I didn’t leave that pouch for Sarah.” Brunda mused. “I’m sure she would have gladly sweetened the Earl’s tea with the fine, poisonous herbs it possessed.” The old sorceress waved her hand across the sphere. It stood like an empty black pearl. “But there’s always next time, eh Mandrake?” She chuckled and went back to her book.

 

 

 

 

Daughter of the Silvery Moon

 

 

 

 

In the cold darkness, beneath the shadowed stairway, Luena Pierce sank into a living grave, her mother’s frantic screams still echoing in her mind…

 

A group bearing the Earl of Campbell’s coat-of-arms forced their way into the Pierce home. Jannette Pierce was the only one in sight. Straightway, the scoundrels cuffed the lady’s hands behind her back while delivering a warrant for her arrest.

“On what charges?” Jannette demanded hysterically.

“Witchcraft, my lady,” a scar-faced man answered.

Wide-eyed, the woman searched the room for her child. “Luena!” she shrieked, trying to pull free of the thugs’ grasp.

“Bloody, witch!” the scarred man muttered between clenched teeth. Then delivered a vicious punch, hitting Jannette squarely in the face. She slumped forward, senseless.

Luena had been about to run to her mother’s defense until the man’s brutality. She froze in place beneath the stair steps. In the pandemonium, no one saw the terrified little girl whose luminous blue eyes gazed out at the thugs. When they left, dragging the bound woman behind them, not one even bothered to close the front door. Hours later, it still banged wildly against the parlor wall.

It was well after midnight before instinct caused Luena to move from the cramped stairwell. Dazed, she stumbled into the root cellar. With dark, stifling air consuming her, the little girl followed the stone wall to a corner where she sank to the ground, panting like a frightened animal.

From her sleep, Luena heard the sound of footsteps in the room above her. Moon-eyed, she pushed closer to the wall, trying to disappear into its stone surface. Sunlight filtered into the chamber, and Luena’s saucer-wide eyes slid toward the cellar door where she saw the silhouette of someone.

Like a mist, the person evaporated from the entrance and came to stand in front of the child. Luena shivered more from fear than the cold, her stomach rumbling from lack of food.

Luena recognized Druzelle, the old healer woman that ran the apothecary in town. A silver tear slid down the little girl’s face. Taking the child by the hand, the healer waved her arms. From her fingertips, a cloud wound its way around them, swallowing them up. The two vanished from the cellar to appear in an opened field, miles away from the Pierce house.

Druzelle whispered urgently in Luena’s ear. “I shall send Rowena to announce us. Brunda must not turn us away.”

Luena held her silver heart-shaped locket in one slender hand. In her mind’s eye, she could hear the tap, tap, tap of the big black bird’s sharp beak against Brunda’s windowpane. Tap, tap, tap it came again, and she saw a sleek, black cat jump up onto the window sill and bend its head to one side as it gazed toward the bird.

Rowena turned her narrow, feathered face so that one black eye glistened at the cat. “Caw, caw,” the sound leaped from the yellow beak. The tapping resumed.

Disgruntled, the black cat turned, giving a swish of his tail to the feathered fiend and jumped down onto the floor. The cat glided across the room toward a darkened corner where his mistress slept.

A cacophony of snoring issued from the parched lips of the old woman. It took several pats from Mandrake’s paw to awaken her. Brunda’s eyelids parted. She was not pleased.

“What?” she thundered. “This had better be good, drat you!” She pulled her old body up from the bedding.

Poised beside the window, Brunda glared at the black bird. “Rowena!” she scowled. “You mangy crow! What does Druzelle want now?”

The bird cocked her head, ruffled her feathers and dropped a rolled parchment onto the windowsill.

Brunda drew back the latch and lifted the glass pane. Her irritation was apparent as she read through the note. Nonetheless, she scowled and nodded her assent. Rowena flipped her tail feathers and flew back to her mistress.

 

Luena and Druzelle walked along the frosty, cobbled path; they could smell freshly buttered toast and potatoes frying. Brunda drew back the front door and motioned the pair to enter.

With a gentle hand, Druzelle pulled Luena to the front porch. The lady’s stiff, white apron and the pungent smell of starch filled the little girl’s senses.

“This is Luena Pierce. I found her in the cellar of her home after those…” Druzelle leaned forward to whisper in Brunda’s ear. “Monsters came and took her mother away to the witch trials. They hung her yesterday evening.” Druzelle tried desperately not to let the little girl hear the grim tale. But Luena did hear. Cold tears spilled down her face.

Brunda stood arms akimbo. “Well, what made them think Mrs. Pierce was at fault?” Brunda didn’t bother to lower her voice. Her tenderhearted sister glared at her.

Druzelle took Luena by the hand and lead her to a far corner of the room where Brunda’s worktable stood. Then she whirled on Brunda.

“Can we please talk outside?” Druzelle called over her shoulder. She was already heading for the door.

Brunda rolled her eyes in disgust and followed. The front door clattered shut. Druzelle drew herself up. Her blue eyes were like ice chips.

“No, she was not really a witch! Have those imbeciles been right even once? And even if she was, she hadn’t done anything to them. I swear they are trying to wipe out the entire village! It has gotten so bad, I have decided to go back to my inn and abandon the whole lot of them!”

Brunda studied her sister while rubbing long fingers across her own knotted chin. “And what of this tike that you’ve brought to my house? Do you plan on taking her with you when you go?”

Druzelle smiled congenially. “Well, that’s where I need your help, sister dear.”

Brunda’s response was a cutting, “harrumph!”

Undaunted, Druzelle continued. “It will take me several days to set things up at the inn. In the meantime, I need to leave Luena somewhere secure. She certainly is not safe back in that town with those bloodthirsty savages running rampant!”

A frown creased Brunda’s face. The look in her green-flecked brown eyes was not a welcoming one.

“What am I going to do with the child? I’m not the motherly type and have no wish to be so!”

“Brunda, the poor little thing has nowhere else to go,” Druzelle spoke beseechingly. “I could take her with me, but until the inn is in order, there is just no place for her there. I’ll be living in a crude, grass hovel and in Luena’s state of mind. I do not think that is the best place for her.”

Luena had heard every word. Brunda’s reluctance to keep her cut at her heart. She would rather stay in the grass hovel with the sweet-tempered Druzelle than with the cranky Brunda. But Luena did not voice her misgivings. She merely sighed and gazed down at her hands. Perhaps it didn’t matter where she was; the ache in her heart was so overwhelming the less she did in any capacity, the less she felt.

Luena sat statue-like in the wooden chair where Druzelle had left her hours before. The only sign that the little girl was still alive came from the steady rhythm of her breathing and an occasional blink of her eyes. She stared at a bowl of porridge that Brunda had sat in front of her for lunch and watched, as it became ice cold. Her stomach rumbled terribly, but Luena did not have the strength of will to reach out and pick up the spoon.

Brunda quickly lost patience with the child. The old woman stalked off in a huff to, “be about her business.” Adding that she hoped Luena wouldn’t just sit there and starve to death. “Druzelle will not be happy if she comes back to collect a pile of dried up flesh and bones!”

Nightfall was close at hand. After hours of watching the silent girl, whose eyes stared vacantly before her, Mandrake the cat jumped onto the worktable.

At first, Luena did not acknowledge the cat’s presence. She was off in the land of Nod, quietly anesthetized. Decidedly, Mandrake attempted to jump onto the little girl’s narrow lap. But each subsequent leap ended with him sliding precariously toward the sod floor. Finally, after the fourth try at this ridiculous game, Luena reached out dimpled arms and caught the feline in an absent embrace.

The coolness of the cat’s sleek, furry body brought the child’s conscious mind back to Brunda’s cottage. Nestling her face deep within the fragrant, black fur, Luena didn’t feel quite so hopeless. She held Mandrake too tightly, but though his throat was in his mouth, a weak mew was the only protest he made.

After what seemed like an eternity, Luena let her arms slacken slightly and with one free hand, began to stroke Mandrake’s silky coat. A contented purr rumbled forth.

Meanwhile, Brunda sorted through herbs that she had picked the day before. Some would be hung from the ceiling to dry while others would be pickled in vinegar or alcohol for later use. Once Luena heard the herbalist mutter beneath her breath, “Children, got no use or time for them.”

Brunda held up an empty jar. A beam of moonlight glistened off the glass as she shined it once again. “This will be fine for that batch of medicinal verbena,” she said aloud, and selected another jar that dripped with wet and dotted translucent soap bubbles.

The second jar proved to be more slippery than Brunda had anticipated. Her fingers suddenly lost contact with its surface and it went plummeting toward the floor. After an unsuccessful attempt at catching it, Brunda braced herself for the sound of shattering glass and the mess that would ensure…

When the crash did not come, Brunda glanced downward and saw to her amazement that the jar hovered half an inch or so above the sod floor. She reached down to touch the jar, moments before it dropped undamaged onto the ground with a soft plop.

Straightway, Brunda snatched up the jar and turned to find Mandrake. It had been years, maybe centuries since he had been a full-fledged warlock, but he still liked to play tricks every once in a while. When she spied him resting luxuriously in Luena’s lap, the old woman clicked her tongue and shook her head. The child sat patting Mandrake while the `silly old thing’ loved it.

Then Brunda let one of her rare smiles flit across her face. “Thank you, old fellow. Times being what they are, I do not relish having to go into that town for replacements.” She nodded toward the glass receptacles.

Luena ‘felt’ the cat’s reply. “Sorry old girl wasn’t me.” Then he wrapped his sleek body around Luena’s neck and meowed loudly.

Brunda stared in wonder at the mass of blonde curls that cascaded down the back of the wooden chair. “No!” was all that she could say.

It seemed ludicrous. Brunda walked over to Luena and peered curiously at the child. Luena did not return the look. Her sad eyes stared transfixed; it seemed, at nothing in particular. Brunda’s gaze followed Luena’s until it came to rest upon the worktable. There she found a most unexpected thing. For just above the table’s wooden surface, several of her round bottomed flasks swirled and shimmered in a strange, beautiful dance as the silver light of the moon glistened within.

Glancing back at the little girl, Brunda watched as Luena’s left index finger danced like a conductor’s rod. Her right hand continued to stroke Mandrake. “My, my,” Brunda mused.

Abruptly, the receptacles ceased their cavorting as Luena froze in place. Then just as suddenly, the little girl reached for the porridge spoon and began eating ravenously.

Brunda turned to the stove and drew up a warm bowl of soup. Then with a brusque motion, she snatched the congealed porridge from in front of the child and replaced it with the fresh one. Luena hardly noticed the switch; both were food, and she was so very hungry!

Brunda scratched her chin. “Seems I’ve found the real Pierce witch. Always knew those idiots couldn’t tell a real sorceress from an ordinary person.”

Then with each following night, as the moon amplify Brunda and Mandrake brought the child back from the land of the lost. Until the eve of the full moon, when Luena agreed to accompany Brunda and help her to pick herbs.

The child stood in the moonlight watching. Brunda dug up a root with her bare hands and wrapped it with a coarse cloth. A cloudless sky gave the moon full reign, and as its silvery fingers brushed against them, the golden-haired child began to feel a familiar cold heat envelope her. Gazing at her hands, she saw a cloud covering them. Then from the depths of the mist, silver lightening raced up her arms.

Luena looked up to see Brunda staring at her. “My, my, lightening bug, what is this all about?” The old woman asked.

Luena shrugged.

Next day, Druzelle appeared. Upon seeing her sister, Brunda blurted out, “Did you know that Luena was the witch and not her mother?”

Druzelle smiled. “Well, yes, I did. Didn’t I tell you before I left?”

Frowning, Brunda shook her head. “No, somehow you forgot that bit of information. Might have made it a bit easier to deal with the situation, if you had!”

A worried look crossed Druzelle’s face. “Has something happened to the child?”

Brunda huffed, “Girl almost starved herself, but no, she’s fine.” The old woman quickly changed the subject. “I’ve been reading all night to find out more about this power Luena has.”

“Yes, she does possess a rare form of magic,” Druzelle mused. Brunda nodded her head, and Druzelle eagerly continued, “So please tell what it is that you have found.”

“This little witch has natural magic,” Brunda recanted. “She doesn’t need herbs, magic spells, toads or spiders; only her own essence and the power of the moon’s light. I’ve also found that she can read minds as long as she is touching that silver necklace around her neck. So there’s no use in your trying to keep secrets from her anymore! I don’t know if she has any other talismans that enhance her magic, but silver and moonlight are definitely strong ones for her.

Brunda’s eyes became two slits. “One thing for sure, the little one’s power is such that it must be carefully cultivated. She must be allowed to grow naturally into whatever she is meant to be. She is young and vulnerable, and we must keep her secret from others who might want to exploit her, perhaps for great evil.”

 

Luena sat in the corner with Mandrake lying happily upon her lap. Vulnerable, she mulled the word over in her mind. I wonder what that means.

 

 

 

 

The Curse of Job

 

 

 

 

It was one of those crystal mornings. A crisp, cool breeze fell against Luena’s face and rustled her golden hair. The sky above her shone so blue that it hurt her eyes. She knew she should not be wasting time daydreaming; Brunda would not approve. But the day was so glorious; Luena just could not help herself.

Her basket of herbs was not half full. A touch of contrition squeezed at her heart, but that was soon forgotten when the sound of a bird drew her attention. She found herself following the little cardinal as it flitted from tree branch to tree branch, her task of gathering herbs for the week’s lessons entirely forgotten.

A patch of clover spread out in the field before her. She stopped to kneel beside the pungent herbs, and reached out to caress the tiny pink blossoms that grew among them.

Luena jerked her head in the direction of a sudden uproar. Within moments, she was surrounded by a band of horsemen. Before she could give a cry of alarm, one of the hulking brutes reached down and clasped his dirty hand across her mouth.

Hot tears sprang to Luena’s eyes and instinctively, she sank her teeth into the meaty palm. With his free hand, the man delivered the child a stinging slap across the face. Luena crumpled, her small body racked with sobs.

 

Brunda peered out the window. This was the third time in a week that Luena had been late completing her chores.

She said to Mandrake, who dozed lazily on a wooden chair, “Why did I ever believe I had the patience to apprentice such a young child or anyone for that matter?”

 

He turned a yellow-green eye in Brunda’s direction, dampened one paw and began stroking his ears. He paused in mid-stroke to perk up his ears as if he heard something; then he went back to washing.

“Better go and check on her. It is getting late, and we need to start work on her lessons before the day is completely gone.” The old sorceress seized her broom and was out the door with Mandrake close behind.

Brunda flew across the meadow, searching for signs of the little girl. She soon spied Luena’s gathering basket in a crushed bed of clover and swerved toward it. Landing her broom, Brunda noticed that the basket lay beyond the invisible wall that hid her land from outsiders.

“Now where has that child gotten to? Luena!” The old woman cried in vexation. She shot a glance toward Mandrake. “Haven’t I told her time and time again not to go beyond the protective barrier?” Steadying herself, Brunda stretched forth her hands, reciting a temporal displacement spell, and waited.

At first, the images came slowly. Then they swept the atmosphere in a broad panorama. Brunda gazed upon the ephemeral portrayal of Luena’s capture. A consuming fury blazed within her as the scenes played to their conclusion. She cast the spell several times more to see if she could make out who the men were, but each time the images came through too vague.

“The savages!” Brunda tore at the air. Then she turned to Mandrake. “Though it irks me to have to admit it, I need Druzelle’s assistance in this. With her talent,” Brunda almost choked on the words. “For making people believe she is what she is not, perhaps Druzelle can go into that cursed village and find out what has become of the child.”

 

Mandrake meowed loudly and in a wink he disappeared to carry Brunda’s message.

 

Druzelle listened carefully to Mandrake while tears of rage filled her blue eyes. Then, in the twinkling of an eye, she vanished from the forest and appeared behind one of the village shops, wearing the guise of the community gardener. She maintained that the townsfolk were always eager to accommodate the talented botanist.

Unfortunately, the information Druzelle acquired had nothing to do with the whereabouts of Luena. Which persons needed their lawns cultivated or rose gardens pruned. Druzelle heard more than enough about that! A few people looked askew at the ‘old man’ when asked about Luena’s family. Since Luena’s mother had been charged with witchcraft, the subject was taboo.

Standing at the edge of town, Druzelle quickly changed back to her true self and teleported to the brink of Brunda’s land. She found the other sorceress still standing beside the spot where Luena had disappeared.

Since sending Mandrake on his errand, Brunda had been reasoning out the curious business of Luena’s capture. It had finally occurred to her to look in the direction of the Earl of Campbell. Though Brunda had thwarted his previous plans to seize her land, the Earl was still a thorn in her side and would be so as long as he lived.

Druzelle related her failure to obtain any valuable information. Then Brunda explained her idea concerning the Earl.

“I can see where you would get that idea, Sister, dear,” Druzelle nodded. “The Earl is a terrible brute, and from what I gathered in the town, he is the main force behind most of the witchcraft accusations. He is not only devious and cruel but a truly uncivilized rat!”

“Yes, he is one of those who can never get enough of the riches of this world,” Brunda added. “He won’t be content until he owns most of the land within one hundred miles of here. Greedy, greedy fool!”

“But why would he want Luena?” Druzelle wondered. “He has already claimed the Pierce land for his own. The way you describe this morning’s happenings, it sounds as if he was deliberately searching for the little girl.”

“Of course he was, you silly ninny!” Brunda snapped. “With Luena alive to claim the land, he could not have a clear title to it.”

Druzelle’s cobalt eyes widened. “Brunda, do you think it could have anything to do with his grudge against you? Those men were looking near `your’ land, after all.”

The black depths of Brunda’s eyes became a blazing inferno. When she finally spoke, her voice came forth soft, but deadly. “Yes, of course, you could be right. Though he is a cur, he is not entirely stupid. The old scoundrel must have been watching these fields, and Luena simply got caught in between.” Brunda stroked her chin. “Ah yes, it all makes perfect sense now.”

 

Druzelle stood in the garden outside the Earl of Campbell’s manor house. With a swish of her hand, she became the image of Sarah, the Earl’s housekeeper. Quietly, she made her way into the dwelling.

As Druzelle passed through a hallway, she happened by a rather dusty cupboard. “Tsk, Tsk what an untidy maidservant you are, Sarah dear,” she remarked while running a genteel finger through the grime.

Dusting her hands together, Druzelle found herself heading down still another passageway. Suddenly, she stopped dead in her tracks as a chill swept up her spine. Just inside one of the rooms sat the traitorous witch, Yulricka.

Druzelle gasped, as she quickly stepped from view. “What is she doing here with one who hangs witches?” Druzelle stood perfectly still, not wanting to continue past the room. Yulricka was a malcontent in the witch community and possessed a strong telepathic power, though that was about all the witchcraft she did posses; Druzelle feared the other might have the cognizance to see through her disguise.

With quick side steps, Druzelle turned to head down an adjacent passageway. Then she spied something on the floor. Reaching down, Druzelle drew up a little silver locket. Crushing the delicate necklace against her chest, she whispered. “Surely this is the same one that Luena always wears.”

Quickly, Druzelle ducked down the other passage that led to the larder. There, she surmised, would surely be servants from whom she could hear the manor tattle and perhaps find out something concerning Luena.

Druzelle stood outside the manor house once again. “Ignorant peasants!” she howled. “All they can talk about is how high the bread has risen and if snow will come early to the fields. Not a one of them has any good gossiping skills. They are, undoubtedly, the most boring bunch of old crones I have ever seen. Humph!” In a flash, the rotund witch vacated the premises.

 

She laid the little necklace in Brunda’s outstretched hand. Casting another temporal displacement spell, the two watched the vision of Yulricka jerking the locket from Luena’s neck and tossing it to the floor. The scene faded as the little girl, and her assailant moved away from the necklace.

Brunda’s eyes narrowed to slits. “I’ll see that witch become jackal tidbits!”

Eagerly, Druzelle put in. “At least now we know who was responsible for Luena’s capture.”

“Yes we do,” Brunda continued to speak in low, sinister intonations. “When I get my hands on that…” Without finishing her words, Brunda strode across to her worktable, where sat her sleeping crystal ball. “I have been trying to find Luena within its depths all day. It must be Yulricka’s doing that no image of the child can be found.”

Druzelle began to wring her hands. “What shall we do now? How do we avert Yulricka’s magic?”

“I’m not afraid of that traitorous bag o’bones!” Brunda thundered. “Once the moon’s golden fingers touch Luena, she will be able to tell us where she is. We must not underestimate the child’s power, Druzelle!” Then Brunda chuckled to herself. “Yes, Yulricka will wish that she had never tangled with us.”

 

Tendrils of moonlight filtered through the window as one silver finger rested upon the crystal ball. Brunda smiled as an explosion of color began to form within the orb. The two sorceresses leaned in unison to watch the rainbow eruption.

Then within her mind, Druzelle began to hear the same words over and over, “Scared, Hurt, My Head Is Hurt, Brunda-Druzelle, Brunda-Druzelle, Help!”

“I hear her!” Druzelle exclaimed. Brunda smiled wryly while the multi-colors within the crystal ball merged to form the golden haired child. Luena was seated on horseback, surrounded by several men, including the Earl of Campbell, and carefully guarded by Yulricka.

“I recognize that stretch of road!” Druzelle clapped her hands.

“Yes, as do I,” Brunda nodded. “I will meet you there, Sister.” She tossed the words over her shoulder as she took up her broom and leaped through the doorway, airborne.

“Yes!” Druzelle affirmed.

The direction the party traveled led to a wayside inn of unsavory reputation. Towards this place, Brunda aimed her broom. She came to a stop and dismounted only moments before the ill-fated band arrived. With hatred glazed eyes, the old witch stood directly in the middle of the road, waiting. Within moments, Druzelle joined her.

To create as much chaos as possible, the rotund Druzelle decided to conjure an illusion that she and Brunda were giant ogresses, equipped with battle-axes and spiked clubs. She chuckled to herself as she weaved a spell. “Brunda will hate it, and it will not fool Yulricka, but what fun to watch the mortal curs scatter like leaves in the wind.”

When Brunda realized what Druzelle was up to, she started to protest vehemently. But then the irony of it became very apparent, and Brunda allowed the glamor.

The first ones to see them reacted just as Druzelle had hoped. Dropping their weapons, the men bolted for the woods, screaming and shouting at the horror they had beheld.

Yulricka jeered, “It is not what you think. No hulks block our way. Just a pair of enfeebled old women trying to frighten us with their carnival act.”

Wild rage consumed Brunda. “That is the last straw!” She thundered. Reaching within her cloak, she drew out a pouch of crushed herbs. With a wave of her hand, she began to weave an incantation.

But when she looked up to release the final words, she saw that Yulricka had suddenly vanished. “Where is she; where did that mangy hag fly off too?”

Brunda felt a tap on her shoulder and the sound of Druzelle clearing her throat. “I did it, sister. We cannot have our consciences burdened with the killing of another, even though it be a traitorous witch. I am sorry if I have angered you, but I put her into the black abyss. It will take her a few years to figure a way out.”

“You hope.” Scowled Brunda. Then she turned her attention toward the Earl.

Even without his magician consort, the man sat upon his horse as arrogant as ever. “Well,” he blustered. “Do you intend on sending me to the abyss as well? I would like to know how you would explain my disappearance to the town’s folk.”

Brunda’s smile was brutal. “I explain myself to no one, Campbell. And no, I do not intend to send you to the abyss; that would be all so sweet a punishment for the likes of you.”

Then her smile was gone. In its place, Brunda’s face became a cyclone of revenge. “I let you go without punishment once before, but this time you have gone too far.”

A wild look came into Druzelle’s eyes as she desperately tried to draw Brunda’s attention toward herself. “Let me be, Sister!” Brunda thundered.

Then she turned back to the insolent Earl. “I curse you with the Plagues of Job. Job was a Godly man and passed the tests, but let us see how well, one such as you, will fair.”

The ground beneath their feet began to rumble as Brunda raised her hands. A flux of greenish oozed dripped from her fingertips before turning into lightning and striking the air surrounding the Earl. He lowered his head and raised his arms to shield his face.

Brunda was wild with laughter as an emerald vapor enveloped Campbell, who began to cough and choke, but not one of his men dared reach out to assist him. Soon, the foul, green cloud consumed him.

Brunda dusted her hands, picked up her broom and walked over to where Druzelle had joined Luena. The little girl looked shaken, but she smiled at her friends.

Brunda lifted Luena from the horse and placed her on the broom beside Mandrake. Before climbing aboard herself, Brunda turned back to survey her handiwork.

The green mist had evaporated, and the Earl could be seen still astride his horse. With childlike curiosity, Luena turned back to see but quickly averted her eyes. The once proud Earl sat slumped over in his saddle, his entire body, or at least what showed beyond his clothing, was covered with seeping raw boils.

Through his agony, the Earl vowed, “This is not over, witch!”

Brunda merely smiled as she climbed aboard her broom.


Tales of Night Shade

An herb witch finds herself at odds with a powerful lord. In defending her land and the very life of family, she must resort to the thing that could draw even more unwanted attention in her direction.

  • Author: Ledia Runnels
  • Published: 2016-10-15 21:20:09
  • Words: 7632
Tales of Night Shade Tales of Night Shade