This is the third chapter in an ongoing fantasy novel being released part-by-part, every Thursday.
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Morning came as it always did in the mountains: the sky filled with vibrant blue long before the sun climbed high enough for light to bleed over the peaks and chase away the shadows in the valley. Brandon dragged himself through the cold morning mist, half asleep, to the centre of town to find Aleks, who was in much the same state. To their mutual shock, Katarina was there and officiously cor-ralling the smaller children to begin the day’s foraging. As they stood confused at her presence, some adults passed by and berated them for their lateness and leaving Katarina to do all of the work. Bran-don and Aleks exchanged beleaguered glances. After such a maddening experience the previous day, they found themselves cursing at life for not having the basic decency to explain itself.
They set out gathering berries and tubers, fully expecting to return to a similar evening to the one prior. If Katarina had any insights or fears, she refused to share them. She showed the same dom-ineering cheerfulness with the children that she always did and acted as though nothing had hap-pened the night before.
As the shadows began to lengthen the boys quietly tried to find excuses not to return, but the younger children were growing tired and hungry and there was nothing to be gained by getting lec-tured for that as well. Together Brandon and Aleks wished for something, anything, but the last night’s internment with the nonsensical screaming women.
Their wish was granted, but as is so common with wishes, not at all as they would have liked. As they marched down the long hill to the village, they could see a crowd that had formed at the edge of town by Brandon’s home. At first Brandon thought that the entire town had come out to verbally eviscerate him for repeating whatever unexplained sin he had committed the day before. However, as he approached close enough to see clearly, he realized that the crowd surrounding his hut was not waiting for him, but was turned inward and watching intently.
He ran, worried for his mother. Half-formed notions of terrible fates sped his feet but failed to do improve his balance and he tripped and tumbled most of the way to town. Disoriented and bruised, he broke through the crowd. His hut was still, quiet, undamaged. The crowd was silent, and faint mumbling could be heard through the ramshackle walls.
Without warning, the door flew open as a robed figure crashed through it at speed and landed panting on the ground in a heap. The onlookers seemed unable to decide whether to break and run or to advance to help. It took only moments before the panting pile sorted itself into a crooked old man and began to speak. “She is stronger than I anticipated,” he wheezed as he stood. “Stay back if you value your souls.”
The onlookers obeyed but their curiosity prevented them from moving away. Brandon, too, froze. He didn’t know what was happening. He knew only that a man he didn’t know, clearly a priest of Oreamnos, had been thrown through his front door. Brandon scanned for his mother in the crowd, hoping in vain, that she wasn’t inside with whatever was doing battle with the old man. She wasn’t there. He prepared himself to join the priest against whatever hid in the shadows of his hut, but he hesitated as the priest began to chant.
The old man hunched and prayed in deep, sonorous tones and a glow seemed to form within his robes. There was a brilliant flash of light and a burst of smoke. As the smoke cleared, the man had been changed. He stood tall and broad, his grey cloak now bright white and his walking stick replaced with a long, gleaming sword. He tested the weight of his blade and marched in.
As he slammed the remains of the door behind him, a cacophony erupted within. The sounds of breaking pottery and furniture were accented by inhuman roars. Brandon finally worked up the courage to join the fray but wasn’t even able to make it through the doorway before a broken chair intercepted him and sent him sprawling back out onto the ground.
Brandon regained his feet, but the commotion had stopped. The priest leaning on the door-frame, exhausted. His blade dripped with glowing green ichor. “The witch has been defeated,” the priest boomed. “Oreamnos has guided my blade this day. May His mountains protect us.”
“May His mountains protect us,” murmured the crowd in unison.
“Mayor Alfried,” the priest called out. “Please retrieve the witch. She is wounded, but a mere blade cannot kill such a creature. We must burn her before she revives.”
The Mayor, Katarina’s father, entered the battered hut tentatively, followed by two very large but reluctant men. They returned moments later, dragging a limp body.
“Mother!” cried Brandon as he ran to her aid, but made it only a couple of steps before he met a booted foot coming much faster in the other direction. He crumpled backwards, leaving the contents of his lungs behind. He stared up as he struggled to find his breath and found the owner of the boot to be the priest, who was now looming over him with his sword pointed squarely at his face.
“Mother?” said the priest in an accusing tone as he stared down at Brandon with dark, cruel eyes. “Why was I not told that the witch had born a son?” He reached down to grab Brandon but as he touched the boy’s skin, there was a fiery flash and a burst of smoke that forced the priest to rear back.
“Demon spawn!” The priest shouted. “Quickly, seize him!”
The crowd lurched forward and before Brandon could process what had been said, he had the weight of a half dozen men crushing down on him. His hands were pinned and his mouth filled with the taste of dirt and blood. As the air was crushed from his lungs, the words started to find purchase in his mind. A witch. His mother was a witch? Was that why she had hidden? Was that why she never spoke of his father? He was the son of a demon, a cursed soul, a walking blight.
He heard Katarina’s piercing cry from the crowd. She was screaming to let Brandon go. He gasped, trying to tell her that it was alright. That she didn’t understand. That she should stay back. That he’d lied to her all these years without knowing. The shame of his unintentional deceit exhausted the last of his will to fight.
He was hauled to his feet and the priest approached. “I am Magnus, servant of the Mountain, Horn of Oreamnos,” he boasted. “I see you, demon, and I do not despair. You shall no more walk this good land. I know your dark ways and I will return you to the frozen hell that spawned you.”
Magnus’s speech was interrupted by a panicked Mayor Alfried, “Father, there is no wound! The wound has healed!”
Brandon looked up. The mayor was pointing at the cut in his mother’s shift. It was stained green from her tainted blood but the flesh beneath showed no mark of having been pierced moments ago. He had a brief moment of hope before the priest spoke.
“Then she will not long be unconscious. We must brand her and burn her. Gather the wood.” With a flourish of his sword, he sent a dozen men away to build a pyre. He then turned back to Bran-don, “Empty a cellar and lock him within. He seems weak still, the demon has not yet manifested fully within him or we would have all perished. We shall deal with him once we are certain the witch is truly dead.” With that, the priest walked off to oversee construction.