Where Witches WalkbyCatalingus2005©
They stood on wet ground as the cool breeze of their darkest hour swept past. Most of their numbers were gone.
The free lands in the north had all fallen, swallowed up by the black mass of the oppressive Kath'rahim army. Only York stood against them now, one final free people, stretched fabric-thin against a world's worth of steel.
For a year they had managed to hold the untold numbers at bay. Under the leadership of King James Rawlings III, they had used the swift striking movements a smaller force could achieve, but a larger force could not quickly respond to, as a tool of harassment. If nothing else, they had hoped to maintain their own independence. Now, not even that seemed possible any more. The devil was at their doorstep, and the lock was broken.
Kath'rahim, covering the southern part of the great continent, had always been a dark and oppressive land. Authoritarian and bleak, even their religious music was known for its minor keys and moaning choirs. The people of the large, desert-flecked nation obeyed their faith-based leaders and worked as ants in a colony.
Kath'rahim, though, had also maintained a lack of contact with the rest of the world. They had held strong border defenses and refused significant trade for as long as anybody could remember. Up until a few years ago, most people had never actually seen a Kath'rahiminer, and little was known about them.
And then the armies marched through the gates.
Unknown to the outside world, Kath'rahim had long been suffering a drought that evaporated farmland and starved families. In response, the emperors of what was often called The Hidden Land had instigated a number of programs that bought time, but solved nothing. The newest ruler, a military commander and son of a wealthy family named Guyen Tahlen, had seen something in the faces of scared mothers and bony children nobody else had: opportunity.
Using the famine as a rallying cry, he had whipped his people into a frenzied belief that, because they had a right to survive, they had a right to take fertile land from the lands to their north. His armies swelled and, before anybody even realized his ambitions, he was standing at their doorsteps.
Of course, he'd had no intention of stopping with the conquering of his neighbors, and once his men tasted victory he had no trouble convincing them to continue the fight. What finally made him truly threatening to all who stood before him was his promise of protection for the families of any men in his new lands who would join his cause. His own defeated enemies had quickly allowed him to build the largest army in written history.
Tahlen did not hide his ambitions. He wanted the world.
James Rawlings, and his strong wife Nina, had guided York's ever dwindling numbers into battle time and again. Together, they had managed to accomplish something nobody else had in the face of Tahlen's overwhelming numbers: victories over the black swarm at their doorstep. This, along with their passion for freedom and humanity, had earned them the position of being the people Guyen Tahlen hated most in this world. He dreamed at night of the ways he would give them pain. He made it clear to all that there would be no end to their sufferings, should they fall into his grip.
When he captured David's half-brother, Nicholas, fleeing north in a caravan he had gutted him in public and sent his organs to his enemy king in a box. Guyen Tahlen was a soulless creature.
The threat of suffering had never seemed more real than it did now. The small army of York was split in two, having just completed a successful feint and flank maneuver on one of Tahlen's smaller corps, and the hope had been to reconnect before the large force could react. James led one wing, Nina the other. He stood now at the planned meeting point, high in the Aerothian Mountains. The wind made a sound that could only come from the world of the dead. Like a promise, or a threat. He ignored it, scanning the horizon as he had for the last six hours. Nothing.
"The scouts are back," Gerald Lang, James' oldest and most experienced commander, was climbing up to the lookout point. His awkward movements betrayed his age, but his thick pepper beard and hawkish eyes made him look every bit as tough as he was.
"They haven't found anything," James Rawlings's eyes continued their diligent hunt.
"No," Lang sighed, reaching the point. "But there was smoke in the direction of the Misean Rivers. Black smoke, they said. Thick." He watched his king's face as he said it. He had been advisor to James's father, had watched the boy become the man, and was as much a concerned uncle as a reliable general.
"Then she's lost," James continued searching without visible emotion, as though he hadn't just resolved himself to such a reality.
"Maybe not, my boy. Maybe not." Lang put his hand on the tall man's shoulder. Neither looked at the other. Long moments passed.
James tensed. "There's a rider."
"Where?" The old man squinted in the direction James was looking. "I don't see anything."
James pushed away suddenly, leaping down the mountainside towards the camp below. "It's Piani!" he shouted over his shoulder as he ran.
General Hane Piani was Nina Rawlings's military advisor. A loud, aggressive man with a tendency to get into fights over trivial things, he nevertheless had always been as gentle as a teddy bear around the queen. On the field, he was a great match for Nina's mathematical eye; she maneuvered troops like she was playing chess, and he guided them in their work like each new breath was a fistfight.
As he rushed into the encampment, dirty and bruised, he headed straight for the command tent. His horse, a fine and strong animal, foamed with the effort of the long run. Blood flecked its nostrils.
"My lord!" He howled well before he was actually in hearing range. "My lord!"
He and James reached the command area within moments of each other, both out of breath. "Where?" James called, running.
"Gone," Piani practically fell from his horse when it stopped, holding his hand to a bloody tear in the side of his uniform. "The witches...the witches are..."
James jerked to a stop, suddenly cold. "The witches are neutral," he said flatly.
"No sir," Piani gasped, bent forward and looking ready to collapse. "They fought against us. We...they captured the queen."
"Nina..." James fell to his knees. "Captured. She's not dead."
"No, sir," Piani swooned and shook his head, as though dizzy. "But..."
"For the love of all things!" Lang rushed past James and put his hands under the younger general's armpits. Only a slight limp showed the exertion of rushing down the steep incline. "This man is wounded. Somebody call a surgeon!"
"Nina," James stared blankly at them. "He's got Nina."
Lang ignored him, buckling slightly under the weight of the bloody figure he supported. Piani's eyelids fluttered as he fought to stay awake. "She'll fight," he whispered. "She'll fight for sure."
Nina didn't bother fighting against her chains. It would be of no use, and it would only encourage her tormentors. She had given herself up for dead the moment on the battlefield that the witches had swooped and captured her, and she would do her best not to give them any other satisfaction.
She looked around. She was in a large tent, which she was certain was placed at the very center of the huge army. A thick fabric bisected the middle of the massive structure. The room she was in was a command center; the other was no doubt Lord Tahlen's personal quarters. She hoped she wouldn't have to see them; she doubted she'd be that lucky.
She was against one wall, a sturdy metal collar on her neck sprouting chains that connected to wrist and ankle bracelets. The chains were short, pulled tight, making it impossible for her to stand or move. Instead, she was forced into the awkward position of kneeling with her arms pulled back, her chest pushed out and, thanks to her torn dress, her breasts well more exposed than she would prefer. Even whores would be embarrassed by the display she was being forced to give.
Guards, massive men with alert eyes, stood at the entryway and on either side of her. A big wooden table was the center of everyone else's attention for now. Strategy was the game on their mind. Lord Tahlen was among them. He towered over the others, pacing like an angry lion. After some time he brushed his commanders away. This left him alone with Nina, minus the silently immobile guards.
"You look wonderful, my dear," he chuckled, striding over to her. His voice was deep, flat. He wore baggy pants that clung snugly to his thick waist and an open vest. A layer of fat coated his tremendous musculature, and his stomach stood out before him. He was hairy and sweating profusely. Beaded water ran down his lined face and traced the curves of his massive chest and stomach. His immense size and glistening sweat made him an intimidating figure. His lined face and yellow teeth made him disgusting.
"Wish I could say the same for you," she spat.
He smiled down at her, making her uncomfortably aware of her position. Then, without any sign of malice, he drove his fist down on her left breast. She screamed in shock and pain, and tried to twist away. This only caused her bracelets to dig into her ankles. She ached where he had struck her. He watched, amused. Then, he turned to one of the guards in the doorway. "Bring the girls." The man moved immediately, and Tahlen reached down to grip Nina's golden curls. He yanked hard, forcing her head back and digging the collar into her neck. "You want to not be foolish here, my dear."
"I thought it might help me fit in," she snarled through clenched teeth. If she could entice him enough, maybe he would kill her now and it would be over quickly.
"Don't worry about that, sunshine," he smiled down at her, pulling her face closer, "you'll do just fine." His smell made her want to be sick.
Just then the guard returned, with a small figure in tow. Looking scared, afraid, and bruised was Cindy Rawlings...the older of the two daughters of David's dead brother. Cindy was 11, her sister Jane was 6. They were David's only surviving relatives, now. Nina loved them as if they were her own daughters.
"Nina!" Cindy shouted, as the guard pushed her towards Tahlen. She stumbled and fell to her knees. Nina wanted to reach out for her. She looked weary and weak, but beyond the bruising she seemed to have avoided serious harm.
"God, no..." Nina moaned. She became aware of her own position, and was ashamed. She would have done much to avoid letting the child see her in such an exposed, beaten place.
Tahlen gripped the poor child's hair, as he had Nina's, and yanked her up to her feet. "God, yes," he stared intently at Nina, letting go of her head. "I want you to know that Cindy can get out of this alive. Do you understand me? She can live. It's up to you. Entirely up to you."
"I don't seem to have any influence here," she snapped.
"Oh, but you do. You see, simply by acting so bratty, you have caused this to happen." Casually, he gripped one of Cindy's fingers in his massive, brutish grip and bent it casually in the wrong direction. The girl screamed as it popped and twisted obscenely. Her entire hand could easily have disappeared in his tremendous grip. He didn't even have to try as he broke her finger.
"No!" Nina cried out. Her guts twisted with the wounded digit.
Tahlen handed the girl back to the officer. She cried over her damaged hand, clutching it to her chest. "Take her to her cell," he waved dismissively, "I'll let you know in the morning if she's going to get to see the doctor about that." He turned back to Nina. Smug certainty gave his face a kind of serenity that would have been attractive, if she hadn't known its source. If he hadn't just broken the bone of a child to make a simple point. "So long as you make good choices, she will be unharmed. I swear it. Every bad choice, she gets hurt. Do something really stupid, and I might even start in on her sister Jane."
"Jane is here?" She hoped he was bluffing.
"Pray you don't give me reason to prove it," his face held a challenge that tore the hope out of her.
"Why are you doing this?" She sobbed, knowing full well. Tahlen was a man built on hate, and in his lifetime he would never again find the kind of hate he held for James and Nina Rawlings.
Tahlen walked back over, his feet touching her knees, and lifted her chin up with one sweaty palm. "You and your husband have caused me a great deal of irritation. When I capture him, and I will capture him, I want him to see you at my side." Excitement flickered in his eyes, and she fought the urge to shrink away from that gaze. "More than that, I want him to see the swell of your belly, to find your body heavy with pregnancy, to know that, even if he were to win, you could never be fully his again."
Tears ran down her face. "Please..."
"Enough talk," he released her face and casually delivered a backhanded slap that left her rolling on the ground. She tasted blood. "Prepare her for bed."
As the guards lifted her up and began carrying her towards the emperor's personal sleeping chambers, a chill ran down Nina Rawlings's spine.
"I want your best suggestions on what is to be done. We have to save the queen."
David Rawlings looked around the table at his generals. Most of them wouldn't meet his gaze. They knew, as he did deep down, that any attempt at a rescue would be suicide. It would be the destruction of their cause in the name of a vain attempt to rescue a marriage. But they would not think to argue against him, either.
Except for two men. Hane Piani, still wearing the bandages of his wounds, stared at his king. "You cannot possibly be so foolish," he grunted. His eyes glared out from above his bent nose and narrow jaw.
"You overstep your rights, general," David returned the angry glare. "My decision is made, and you will abide by it."
"Then I will die," Piani said matter-of-factly, "and I will die for nothing."
General Lang held up his hand. He looked older and wearier, in the candle-lit dusk. "Let us not be foolish," he sad quietly. The sandpapered exhaustion that eternally held his throat gave his words weight. David Rawlings turned his lit gaze on his old friend, and stared for a moment before softening his expression. He looked down at his hands, folded before him. In the silence, he opened his palms and looked down at them. He studied the lines that marked them, and sighed.
"This war is not over," he said, "and we will not do anything to rush its conclusion." Relief flooded the room. He continued. "I have fought, by your sides, in the name of freedom and country. We have done this together, and done well. So I will not lie to you now: I no longer care about those things." He looked hard at each man in turn as he spoke. "None of this...not our nation, our heritage, our sovereignty, nor our lives as free men...none of it matters to me in the face of this loss. I fight now for my wife. I will either save or I will avenge her. Either way, I only care to survive this war if she does. My fate is now linked to hers." They did not flinch at his conviction, but the weight of his words were upon them.
He looked at his hands again, as though hoping to find something there he could use. "If she is dead, I hope to be as well. Soon. I do sincerely promise you that my own quest will not interfere with what we have started here. But we have been few, and are significantly fewer now. They are still many." In a sudden movement he slammed both fists onto the table. Men jerked with surprise, and when he looked up at them again all emotion had left his face. "We must now plan for something beyond war," he whispered. "A war is a thing we can not win. We must slaughter them as a farmer slaughters cattle. We won't win fights. We cannot win battles. We cannot even survive them. So we will not fight. Not as they are accustomed to. We will cut their throats as they sleep and we will poison the water that they drink. We now conspire to commit murder, however we may."
Nina couldn't keep her shoulders and back from aching. But she still felt relief.
The emperor hadn't taken her last night. She doubted that terrible event was far off, but it hadn't happened yet. He was letting her roil in her fear, for his own amusement. It was working.
Carried to his quarters, she'd been stripped naked and chained to the side of the bed, left to sleep on the ground. Before the emperor returned, however, one of the witch women had come and muttered a few words over her. It was a fat, young witch Nina recognized. She was named Cecile, or Cecilia, or something of the like. She had spent some time in Nina and James's own court. She showed no recognition, now, as she cast her spell.
A single white line appeared on Nina's collar, and she had quickly discovered that it meant the emperor could give her horrific pain with just an angry thought. No need to beat her, just to think about it. She wondered if that would actually stop him. When he'd entered the room and stripped naked for bed, making a show of it for her, she'd turned away only to be zapped with agony worse than any fist could deliver. It felt as though someone had a death grip on her heart and lungs, twisting and tearing with abandon. It stopped only when she promised to watch.
Although heavily muscled, his body was a long ways away from attractive. Instead, he had the look of an angry, murderous bull. His thick neck and wide shoulders alone were enough to make him look like a monster of some kind, but nothing was as hideous and frightening as his manhood. As he proudly removed his pants, the blood left her face. It did indeed look like something that should belong on a bull. The huge pouch beneath it rolled silently of its own accord. As he kicked his pants away, it all slapped loudly and heavily against his thigh. A rutting scent emanated from it, barely noticeable from where Nina sat five feet away. Even flaccid, the image was that of a weapon.
He'd walked over and placed one foot squarely on her chest, between her breasts. He pushed her down onto her back as easily as he'd broken Cindy's finger. After taking a moment to admire her nudity (she dared not cover herself), he'd walked up. His feet moved on either side of her body. He stopped when he was standing directly across her breasts, her gaze on the lewd display of his heavy, soft member and other intimate areas. Fear chewed at her core. The same foot again landed on her chest, so that he stood over her like conquered land. The spot where he'd punched her, near the top of her breast, ached. It was bruising quickly. She silently thanked the gods that James wasn't here to see this, to witness her being dominated by such a creature. Tahlen applied a little weight, as if testing her ability to hold up to it. He stopped increasing the pressure when she coughed once, and then lifted his foot up so that it hovered over her neck. For a moment she flinched against the expectation of violence. Then, filthy sweat-coated toes rested on her chin. He smiled down at her, and placed his big toe on her closed lips.
"Tomorrow," he'd said, "you will have to work harder, if you hope to keep those darling girls alive."
Then he'd slept. She lay all night on the floor, praying for her husband and herself.
When she awoke he was already gone, prepping his army for the day's work. The siege required a lot of tending to, particularly with such a large army, and he had left her there chained to his bed.
Guards stood at the doorway. When she sat up, they took her leash and lead her to the emperor's large bathing tent. It centered around a massive tub, dug into the ground and cemented, big enough to be called a pool. The water was almost three feet deep, but no more. Four beautiful young women, wearing strange slick-looking shorts and no tops, had guided her to the pool to be cleaned. It somehow felt more uncomfortable to have her leash in the hands of a half-nude woman than to have the guards holding it. She blushed when one young brunette's firm breast had brushed against her right arm.