Medina entered the trading town of Crescent from the shadow of the drawbridge arch into the throng of commerce, a perfect place to hide in plain sight. The sun was at its highest point in the sky and it beat down on the crowds of market shoppers. Horses, tethered to carts over loaded with goods, swatted at the constant barrage of flies. Peddlers pushed their wares on passersby while children darted here and there filching gold pieces and jewelry from distracted shoppers. The midday heat was alive and throbbing, intensifying the smell of horses, body odour and spices. Jugglers and puppet masters entertained large crowds of cheering children while their parents browsed the stalls, haggling and arguing over lumps on the fruit and flies on the meat.
Amidst the chaos, Medina pushed her way through the crowd. She walked with a vigor that did not match her frail, elderly frame. She frequently glanced backwards, pushing past people who stared after her, not willing to believe they had been shoved aside by a crone. She paused for a moment to watch a man charm a black snake to sway and dance. She recognized the breed at once, it looked deadly but was harmless. She dropped a gold piece into the man’s basket. The man at the neighboring stall eyed her gold piece eagerly and approached her shouting about potions to make her feel young again. Medina adjusted her hood and walked past him into the main street.
As she hurried down the street, the grey and dirt of her cloak shimmered and streaks of fine red silk ran down the length of it. Looking down, Medina saw streaks of red become larger and bolder. She moved faster, pausing only to glance down the side alleys behind the stalls. The wrinkles on her face receded slowly, and the smooth skin beneath the grey hair looked strange. She touched a hand to her cheek and began to run. No, no, no, net yet, she thought, she ran down behind the stalls. Tangles of grey hair fell smooth and auburn down her face.
Medina turned the corner of a closed shop building and found some room to breathe at last in a litter strewn alley. She searched the inside pockets of her cloak frantically. By now her cloak was mostly red, the grey patches that remained shimmered and faded slowly. She finally produced a small glass bottle from a pocket inside her cloak and drank the dark liquid in one gulp. She took deep breaths, erratic at first, she slowed them down until she felt calmer and leaned to rest against the cool stone of the building behind her. She closed her eyes and wrinkled her nose at the smells of rotting food scraps and excrement of the alley. Her skin sagged. Her hair frizzled up and lost its auburn hue. Medina ran her hands down her cloak and smiled, feeling the rough patchwork of the grey disguise. Something warm splashed on the cobblestone beneath her feet and she felt the cloak soak through to her skin. A foul smell filled her nostrils. The bottom of her cloak and boots were soaked with someone’s piss.
“Watch out below,” came a shout from a window above, followed by mean laughter. Medina tried to squeeze the piss out of her cloak and considered tossing it away. Looking out from the entrance to the alley she could see the temple towering over the market square opposite to her. The old goddess icons protruded from the architecture, their busts sawed down and heads made to look like the patriarchal titans of the Syndicate. She could see the change in color of the stone where the old was disguised as the new. She felt tears begin to well up but she forced them back.
Medina remembered when the Goddess icons had been free. Her earliest memories of the temple were when she was very young. She used to follow her mother around the temple on her various duties. Memories of her mother were foggy now. She remembered her large frame and wild red hair. Medina used to love hiding in her mother’s flowing dresses and skirts that made her look so large and ethereal. So safe and comforting. Her mother used to help feed the poor and heal the sick. She always knew who came to her with pure intentions and who came in greed. One day a poor boy came to the temple one day and her mother caught him stealing small jars of potions. Any other of the temple women would have taken back the stock and have him escorted from the building, but not Medina’s mother. She let him go, potions and all. She told Medina that desperation is a dangerous thing, if someone is desperate enough to steal there is no telling what they might do if they are not allowed the have the thing they need.
I miss you mother, I am glad you did not live to see your temple likes this, Medina thought. Medina heard footsteps approach the alley, and got ready to flee. She sighed in relief to see a shoe-less boy in clothes that were a few sizes too small. Her relief quickly turned to anger. She reached out to slap him, but he jumped out of the way.
“Now, now, don’t be picking on your old friend Johnny here,” Johnny wagged a dirty finger at her. “You’re not in much of a state to be bullying anyone. You smell horrible.” The boy laughed pinching his nose.
“You insolent little rat! Where were you with my supplies last night?” Medina shouted, lunging towards him trying to slap him again, but he bounced aside, laughing. “I have paid you well to keep me in supply. I could be killed, or worse, if I’m seen like this!”
“Sure, sure, lady, a lot of gold,” Johnny suddenly began to fidget and look around him. Medina felt someone step up behind her. “But he paid me more. Nothing personal, although you could have been a bit nicer to me, witch.” He spat out the last word, turned and ran. Medina did not even bother to turn around and see who had paid Johnny to find her. Instinct took over and survival was the only thing that mattered. Her glamour fell away instantly. Magic takes energy but survival takes more.
There were no subtle shimmers and glimmers this time. The disguise fell away in two shudders of light and color as Medina fled the alley. Her long legs carried her quickly, as she barrelled through the crowd her silk cloak of deep, blood red streamed behind her. She ran with ease in red leather breeches and a tight fitting tunic. Her wrinkles were gone, and her skin was alive, imprinted with red symbols like ornate wounds that moved and winded around one another, changing from one moment to the next. Out of habit or desperation, she ran towards the temple. Market shoppers stumbled out of her way in surprise and confusion. Children pointed and squealed in excitement. She heard shouts and curses from the people she ran past. A few tried to grab her shouting accusations. “Witch!” “Grab her. Grab the bitch!”
Mothers hid their children behind their skirts, but the braver ones peeked out, in awe. Some of the braver men barreled into her to slow her down. She cast them away with one hand, each meeting an invisible barrier when they came close, the symbols on her skin stopped moving and flashed bright red each time. Medina felt her energy flagging each time she cast a spell, she wouldn’t be able to keep up this pace. She knew she shouldn’t waste her energy on spells when danger was so close but it was automatic, defensive. She was at the foot of the steps to the temple when something hard and sharp hit her in the back of the head. As she fell, the last thing she saw was the leering faces of the titan sculptures mocking her before the world went dark.
In the darkness there was screaming. She remembered blood stained sheets and the crying of a newborn. Her daughter, Reah. Back when the temple was still theirs, her daughter had come weeks too early in the middle of the sacrifice of the lamb. She was the leader of the coven by then, plagued by the trouble of those times. She remembered dropping the chalice of lamb’s blood as the first contraction hit. The lamb’s blood stained her dress, mingling with the new blood pouring down her thighs. She remembered the pain and the joy as the child was placed in her shaking arms. Then the temple erupted with violence, screams and the eerie whine of magic trying to repel enchanted steel. She was pushed over when she tried to stand, the babe torn from her hands. She tried to hold on to the dream of Reah, but she was gone and it was dark again.
Medina opened her eyes. She felt cold stone beneath her cheek and searing pain around her wrists. She was naked, the symbols on her skin were dull and still. She became violently aware of dull throbbing pain in the back of her head where she had been hit. Groaning, she tried to stand but manacles around her wrist were bolted low on the wall. All she could manage was a painful squat. The metal around her wrists burned her skin as she tried to pull her hands free. She could feel it blocking her energy, supressing her magic. Where am I? She thought, her brain felt foggy like she had had too much wine. Why am I still alive? She looked around nervously but it was too dark to make out anything. She screamed and smashed the manacles on the stone but it was no use.
“Oh come now. Don’t be so dramatic.” A voice in the dark. There was a man in the room with her.
“Who’s there? What do you want from me?”
“Count yourself lucky, Medina, if I was
Syndicate you would be lying dead on the streets of that rotten market town you
loved so dearly.” A light appeared out of nowhere, resting in his hand, casting
his features in sinister shadows. It floated freely, reminding Medina of
something. She couldn’t focus her thoughts, she felt so weak. He was tall and
dressed and smirking. His eyes ran down her naked body but he lusted for
something else. There were streaks of grey in his dark hair but his skin was
young and smooth. The kind of youth that is forced by bastardized magic and
illegal surgeries. She had seen people
like him in the past. Theyc ome
to her for help in reversing some spell gone awry, people clinging to life and power.
“You are no friend of mine. If you are not Syndicate, where did you get this magic?” She shook the chains at him, clenching her teeth to hide the wince of pain. The man just laughed.
“Treason comes cheap these days, girl. There are more people selling Syndicate secrets than keeping them.”
The door behind him opened and Medina had to
close her eyes against the harsh torch light that flooded the room. When she
opened them she saw she was in a bare stone cell. A short but muscular man entered the room
pushing a wooden cart. He said nothing to her or the thin man. He approached
her brazenly and put one hand on her shoulder and held her down while he jabbed
a syringe into her thigh. She tried to push him away but she couldn’t muster
any strength. He grunted at her and pushed her down harder. She stared in
terror at what he was doing: extracting blood from her thigh. There were
several other crusty needle holes on her legs. How long have I been here
thought as her leg muscles gave out and she sank to the floor.
The silent brute transferred her blood to a clean syringe and handed it to the thin man. The thin man rolled back his sleeve and injected himself. The orb of light danced slowly in the air before him. She realized why the orb looked so familiar. Her blood, her power. She began to feel sick. He was stealing her magic. Medina thrashed in the manacles again but the movement spent her.
“You bastard!” She spat at him and failed, the spit dribbled down her face instead. “I hope it kills you.” The thin man’s laugh echoed in the darkness long after he was gone.
The blood-taking continued in small sessions until Medina had lost track of how many times it had happened. It had to be done slowly but frequently: slowly to keep her alive, frequently to keep him alive. She had no concept of time in the room, she usually passed out after losing blood so she could not use her sleep cycle to track the time. The only light appeared when the silent man entered to take her blood. The thin man did not return. There were no windows so she could not see the sun or moon. It was constantly cold. As terrible as the cold, the blood-taking and imprisonment was, it was the suppression of her magic in the chains that despaired Medina. She felt like an insect in winter, alive but suspended, waiting for the warmth to come back to the world of the living. She was no stranger to loneliness. She was the last witch, to be killed on sight, condemned to live alone in hiding. But she had never been without her magic, without its warmth and comfort. She cried and reached out in her sleep, grasping at nothing.
Medina spent most of her time in a trance-like state, somewhere between sleep and dreaming. She dreamt of battles and the dead. Of the years she spent fighting to survive only to find out that her sister witches had all been killed. Endless weeks of burnt villages and abandoned temples. Of midnight dances under the moon with her sisters. Running with the deer in the forest. She dreamt that her magic came back to her. Kissing her softly in her dreams. The warmth returned to her core and she knew what hope felt like again. She held on desperately to her dreams, beginning to imagine that the shackles ceased to burn her wrists and the cold ceased to chill her heart. Her anger returned with the warmth, and she embraced it.
The next time that the silent man arrived with his cart and syringe, she struggled against him as he held her down and spat in his face. The needle cracked off of the syringe, leaving part of it lodged in her skin. He hit her so hard that her vision blacked out for a few moments. She laughed in frantic bursts. Once she started she couldn’t stop. She kept laughing until long after he had gone and the blood loss caused her to pass out. She continued to struggle and spit the next time he visited. He hit her again and again until her face was swollen. She felt like she had completely lost touch with reality. Her laughter echoed in the room, a welcome respite from the silence.
The next time Medina awoke she wasn’t alone.
“You’ve been mistreating poor Caliban, little witch,” said the thin man. He was perched on a stool near the door, watching her. Medina laughed.
“I get it. You win, I lose.I will tell you the secrets of the witches’ immortality. We do not go into the earth until we choose,is that not what you want?” The man snorted in disbelief but Medina could imagine she saw the greedy glint in his eyes as shifted on his seat.
“You underestimate your importance, witch. I have your magic and your blood, what more do I need?” he said but his voice gave him away, all haughtiness gone. He stood close to her now, hovering, anticipating.
“You’ll have to come closer, sir,” Medina said, demure and submissive, “I don’t want Caliban out there to hear our secret.”
The man took the bait. He leaned in close to hear her. In a bout of madness, Medina pulled on the manacles. To her surprise, they burst free from the stone. The symbols on her skin lit up and danced like frenzied snakes. She grabbed the thin man by the neck, the manacles hung on her wrists cold and useless. She strangled him with intense strength, she felt her magic fill her body in erratic surges. The man’s eyes bulged as he gasped and struggled. He tried to scream but she clamped down on his windpipe. All he managed was a whine. She held his neck until his body went limp. Her rage didn’t end with his death. She conjured a blade with one hand, it grew out of palm like deadly flower. She cut a small slit at his throat, and his dying heart pumped blood out of his neck in spurts. She hesitated for a moment, repulsed, then lowered her mouth to the wound and drank. The warmth of his blood, her blood, energized her, the symbols on her skin dancing madly. She tore his skin with savage bites, adrenaline pumping. She thought of nothing but taking back what was hers.
By the time Caliban came to check on the thin man, she was waiting. Blood clung to her skin and coated her teeth like war paint. She disposed of Caliban with one spell, quick and deadly. She walked down the torch lit halls. She could tell by the structure that she was in the dungeons of a castle or fortress but it was dusty and devoid of the hustle and bustle of the castles she had known. She encountered two guards as she ascended the steps from the dungeons the stared at her in shock and died with their mouths hanging open and eyes wide.
She escaped the castle in a frenzy of murder and blood. The few caretakers and guards that remained were caught by surprise. Not a single person came close enough to touch her before they were dead on the ground. She walked out across courtyard and through the main gate which hung half closed, the guard dead at the controls. It was night and raining. The castle was encircled by dark woods and desolate abandoned village buildings. The rain on the grass outside the gate glistened orange and red. She looked up to the sky and laughed. The moon was eclipsed, a bloody orb in the sky.