The Gnarly Tree
Climbing halfway to the top of Witches' Rock, the Gnarly Tree dwarfs even the oversized trees used by Kadies. The tree trunk-thick roots are twisted and knotted, and the multiple trunks bulge out oddly in places some of the bulges even sporting windows. Beneath the shade of its canopy, an oddly shaped log cabin sits, its angles skewed to conform to the wandering roots it hugs. A clearing surrounds the tree and Rock, with several fenced off herb and vegetable gardens filling most of the open space. To the east, the bulk of the Gnarly Woods looms darkly, contrasting with the calm tinkling of the numerous wind-chimes hanging from the twisted limbs of the tree.
The note that Natasha found on the door to her wagon (with no alarm from the ward) was not exactly a summons. It was a very polite invitation for the Spirit Mage to join Isolde for a walk and chat about the future. The tone was generally witchy, however, in that it didn't ask for a response, thus assuming that Natasha would accept the invitation.
When the Khatta arrives at the Gnarly Tree, she finds Isolde kneeling at a small fire pit, where she's feeding what appear to be crossbow bolts into the hot coals. Since she's wearing the pointy hat, it's probably some sort of witch business.
"Scorching the surface to seal it?" Natasha inquires as she walks up the small hill and towards the fire pit. "Or burning a coating to properly prepare it through chemical transition?" She makes no mention of the note, because, well, she's here and it was expected she would be.
"Nothing so complicated," Isolde notes. The fire is very hot, and the witch uses a small bellows to keep it so, reducing the wooden bolts to ash. "How are you today, Natasha?"
Although not immediately visible in the low light provided by fire and the scant illumination that penetrates the gloomy sky and oppressive treeline, it seems that Morgan is here too. He's standing in the shadow of his home, arms folded and face pensive. His eyes seem distant, as if he were looking not at the ground, but somewhere much farther or maybe much closer. He's been all but absent from Stonebarrow life these days, flitting between tasks then vanishing for days on end when not needed.
"Alive, for lack of a better description," Natasha answers as she draws close the the fire, then stops. "Days come and go with little alteration in the events. Since we have taken a more sedentary life, there has been little need for any protective arts or scrying the roads ahead."
"I hear the sedentary life is appealing to you," Isolde says, and pokes at the ashes with a pair of tongs. She then very carefully sifts through the charcoal to pick up… nothing… in the tongs and pantomime placing the nothing into the empty bolt quarrel. "You and Bravil are going to resettle Silverheath, are you not?"
"Thistlebark arrows?" Natasha asks as she watches the odd act of sheathing nothing unfold. "And yes, we are. None of us are growing younger and the roads are better suited to the young; those full of life and little sense of the real dangers that lie upon them," the Khatta notes with a pleasant, bemused, smile. "And those who have knees that do not complain in the morning, for that matter."
"Just wood, I'm afraid," Isolde notes, as she plucks another invisible whatsit from the fire and places it in the quarrel. "Morgan, come here and carry this for me… and do not spill it," she instructs, despite the leather cylinder being clearly empty.
"We will not be any threat to your town if that is your concern," Natasha says, "You have been quite kind to us and that is not lightly forgotten amongst the romany."
The younger Kadie's head rises, turning to regard his mother as he seems to return to the here-and-now. "Yes mother," he says after a moment, walking over and holding his hands out while his brow furrow slightly at the non-visible items. "You'll have to tell me how, of course."
"By the straps, naturally," Isolde notes, handing over the leather quarrel. "Just don't tip it over." She then stands and brushes ash and dirt from her dress. "If you are going to start a new town, you will need a witch, Natasha. Are you going to be the witch?"
Morgan simply nods, as if he had gone through many such conversations with his mother, where asking apparently straightforward things attempts to catch the less-than-expected. He places the quarrel in both hands, hugging it to his chest and shifting his weight to his left leg.
"I suppose I would have to be. Olivia refuses to give up her flowered hat for something more modest and pointed," Natasha answers as she watches Morgan be as confused by the empty quarrel as would any sane person.
"You will have to learn how to be one then," Isolde declares, and starts walking east, towards the forest separating the swamp from the Gnarly Woods. "Starting now. Accompany me on my rounds, the both of you."
Morgan's brows lift, and he gives Natasha what might be a pitying glance before he heads off after his mother.
Natasha's dark brow arches slightly at the command. "Indeed?" she asks as she follows after the shorter Kadie. "You seek to induct me into the local coven, then? A mage would be welcome?" Morgan's look gets a slight shrug from Natasha as the reply.
After stopping at the end of the porch to pick up a covered basket, Isolde notes, "It's not a matter of what I seek, it is a matter of what will be necessary. A town needs a witch, and you will be starting a new town." After leading on a few more steps, Isolde changes topics abruptly by asking, "Have you decided the fate of the Gear Wizard yet?"
It seems Morgan has had the 'Gear Wizard' on his mind too, because he looks up and over to listen in on the response rather than remain in his own thoughts. To Natasha, the young man feels stronger than he once was, undoubtedly due to his contact with the mysterious Mage Qing. Despite this, he wasn't present when Liliana was captured, and seems to have increasingly less time with her, especially after returning to find he was too late to help.
"And from your tone you would prefer someone other than I," Natasha remarks at the rather brusque way Isolde spoke. "As for the wizard … that is difficult. Many would seek revenge against him; which is not justice. Ideally he would have to face those he wronged and understand … but such is not simple. The safest matter of course that would not involve bloodshed would be to sever his link to the realms of magic so that he could cause no further direct harm and exile him back to his people."
"Oh, I think you are a fine candidate for a witch, Natasha," Isolde claims in a softer voice. "You've managed to protect your people on the road. But things are different once you set down roots. If you are patient, you will learn why. Morgan is not very patient, himself, admittedly, but it is time for him to learn some things as well."
Morgan doesn't reply to the insistence he's impatient, or even look surprised or offended. Like the empty quarrel, this may well be something he's grown used to as the son of a village witch the wisdom to stay silent.
"Morgan is young. No one who is young is ever patient. I would say it is the trials of experience that teaches us patience … but it is more that our bodies do not permit us to move as rapidly as we once did," Natasha opines. Morgan could swear the Khatta winked at him soon after her claim.
"I was not particularly patient myself, as a girl," Isolde notes. "Some would say I was a bit wild. But I grew out of it, in time." It isn't long before they come across a clearing with a small cottage in it. Apparently not all Skeeks live in town, or belong to a Clan. Isolde introduces Natasha to them, and they are all very polite. There is some small talk, and subtle questioning. The husband is having a problem with his bowels, and Isolde has Morgan mix up a potion from ingredients in the basket, which she then 'spells' in front of the couple. They receive some fresh loaves of bread on their way out. Natasha and Morgan can both tell that there was no actual magic performed regarding the potion it was just something to settle stomach-acid.
Although his expression doesn't change, Natasha has seen the young man enough to know that tail flick means he's amused. She used to see it a lot, when he was around Liliana more. She doesn't see the gesture very often now, though. When called upon to act, he goes through the motions with a practiced hand. His years of administering to the town beside his mother has made it second nature, and it shows in his handiwork. As they depart, he looks back once, then heads on.
Natasha knows when to stay silent and in the background and with the Skeeks it was certainly one of those times. She would speak if spoken to, but she did not interject her own opinions on the matter at hand since it isn't her place. "A little limestone powder to settle the stomach and ease passing," the Khatta remarks once they are out of earshot. "Though I fear he may be the master of burping for a few days. Acting on the power of belief more than actual works of the arcane, then."
"The results matter more than the means," Morgan agrees, the first time he's spoken more than a few words since they gathered.
"Do not underestimate the power of belief," Isolde says, and then points ahead. A tree… shack… overhangs the path ahead. "Why don't you walk ahead, Natasha?" the witch asks with a smile.
Again Natasha's brow arches up. "That smile makes me expect some sort of doom from above," she notes, "Not unlike your son must feel when Liliana is out stalking him." Still, she does go walk ahead of the group.
"You may be right," Morgan adds, although in response to which, of not both, comments is not clear from his tone. Like his mother, he seems to have learned to use that 'witch tone' that offers nothing but suggests all.
A few paces out, and Natasha feels something shoot through her chest, followed by the twang of a crossbow. "Gotcher, foul specter!" announces a crotchety, high-pitched Kadie voice from the shack. "Ye ain't gettin' me today, Death!"
"That is not the first time I have been accused of being the Specter of Death," Natasha notes to herself and those that walk a ways behind her as she rubs the point where a 'spirit' arrow (a suggestion of one), passed through her. "Though it was often by students who failed to study before one of my exams. You wouldn't fail to study, would you, Morgan?"
The amount of expression on Morgan's face is, perhaps, more telling of his feelings on the matter than the way his brows raise and mouth parts. "No," he insists, head shaking. "Not with the teachers I have."
Isolde steps forward then and waves her hat at the shack. "It's just me, Wilbur!" she calls. "This is a fellow witch, Natasha, and of course you remember Morgan don't you?"
"Morgan's just a little thing, not a tall girl," the owner of the shack claims. His head pops out of the window, revealing the oldest Kadie Natasha has ever seen. His face is so wrinkled it's hard to pick out his eyes, and most of the fur is gone. "Is it that time already?" he asks.
Natasha wisely does not comment that someone who looks as he does should not go around accusing others of being the specter of Death. So, for now she just watches and waits.
"Death may well not outlive Wilbur," Morgan murmurs under his breath. He gives the quiver a distinctly unsettled glance, at odds with the seemingly ineffectiveness of them. He then pauses, and adjusts his hair a little vanity, perhaps?
"It's been a week, Wilbur," Isolde notes, and then points to Morgan. "We brought you fresh ammunition. So you'll let us in, okay?" The old man grunts something in reply, and a trap-door opens in the bottom of the shack, releasing a rope ladder. The witch gestures to Morgan and Natasha to follow, and climbs the rope.
"It would be wise to watch your backside," Natasha advises Morgan before she begins her climb up the rope. "The hands of old men are naturally attracted to the bottoms of women."
Morgan nods soberly to that advice. "I'm well aware," he insists. Looping the quiver over his head, the young man begins to climb.
"Come to think of it, so are Liliana's," Natasha adds.
Inside the shack, Wilbur perches on a stool by the window. He doesn't bother with clothing, as age and sagging flaps of skin provide him enough modesty. Isolde is looking into a pot of gruel that may have been simmering on the ceramic stove since Morgan was a child. "Exchange the quivers, Morgan," she says, and begins adding various herbs from her basket into the pot. "Mind the chamber pot when you step."
The old man also stares at Natasha with some intensity.
"A life mage would have use for the stools of a man of that age," Natasha remarks as she gingerly steps around the old chamber pot. Wilbur's stare is answered by Natasha arching her right brow slightly. "Do you require something?" she finally asks him.
"Where's your hat?" the man asks the mage.
Morgan is quiet on the subject of Liliana, doing what he's told once he's arrived. He walks over and gently relieves the old man of his presumably emptying quiver, replacing it with the fresh one. Rather than turn and walk back, he steps backwards, then turns and walks back.
"Wilbur remembers when the Old Town was flooded," Isolde notes, continuing her examination of the old man's food and bedding, making sure there aren't any dangerous infestations.
"Lost during the dealings with a wizard," Natasha remarks. Her thin tail flicks, then the Khatta taps each of her fingertips of her right hand with her right thumb and mutters something under her breath. Points of light flare into existence over her head. They stretch out and connect, forming the outline of a pointed hat that glows eerily blue in the dimmer light of the cabin. "Is that better?" she asks him. From being around Qing, Morgan easily recognizes the work of a spirit light, a very simple cantrip used by spirit mages for a myriad of purposes; but most often as a replacement for a candle. The first cantrip any student of spirit is taught, or so the Kadie was told.
"Oh, you light up!" Wilbur says, and then goes misty-eyed. "Just like she did… coming across the water like a torch, she was. Life like a flame you could see and feel, my Integra… "
The understanding reflects in Morgan's eyes as his gaze turns to study the phantom hat with no small amount of intensity, head tilting to the side and tail flicking.
"Wilbur, Granny Oggton's been married seven times since then," Isolde reminds the man.
"Eight is my lucky number!" the old man snaps.
"And has been seen arguing with a visiting otter as of late. Jack, I believe his name is called," Natasha adds, "University educated, supposedly."
"Been keeping your skin clean?" the witch asks next, and goes about stretching and rubbing the flaps of skin to make sure nothing is irritated or harboring mushrooms or wildlife.
"I don't truck with unicorns, even if they do have books," the old man claims angrily.
"I think you'll survive another week now, Wilbur," Isolde says. "And remember, you have to aim between the eye sockets for Death! Shooting at the heart doesn't work!"
"That war just a warnin' shot," Wilbur grumbles.
"Death has no heart, after all," Morgan insists as he watches Natasha's hat.
Even Natasha has to crack a smile at that. "Trying to impress the women hunting death?" she asks the ancient creature.
"He ain't getting me," Wilbur claims. "Not 'afore I get my Integra, nope." He then starts wheezing in laughter.
"We have more stops to make," Isolde says, heading for the rope ladder. "Take care and remember your daily rituals, Wilbur and do not drink any of the otters' liquor; I'll know if you do!"
"After you," Natasha says to Morgan and motions to the rope ladder.
"Thank you." Morgan takes the rungs of the rope ladder, and begins climbing down, using a hand now and then to prevent his dress from blowing too wildly.
Natasha follows the young Kadie down. Once they're both on the ground she waves her hand dismissively and the 'halo hat' disperses like so much dust. "He reminds me of some of my old instructors from the Collegia," she admits.
"He isn't unlike the Collegia instructor I know, now." It's faint, but Morgan actually grins a little.
"They do smell about the same," Natasha says as she nods sagely.
The next few stops are more normal. Small homesteads scattered about, with small families. There are a few cases where some sort of treatment is needed, either medicinal or psychological. It's all very pleasant, and the witches always leave with some little gift (which often ends up going to one of the hermits they see. Isolde's demeanor seems to dim a bit, however, when they reach the last cottage on the route.
There does seem to be a pall of despair hovering over the thatched roof of the place, when Isolde knocks on the door. It's answered by an unusual Skeek, in that he has ram horns growing out of his head. "Isolde!" he says, with tears forming around his eyes. "Please come in… " He doesn't even seem to notice Morgan and Natasha.
Natasha is always polite and will smile and speak if spoken to. But … she does not in any way try to take on an air of authority; that she leaves to Isolde. The last house … Natasha notices the change but says nothing of it; whatever theories she forms she keeps to herself. Nor does she follow Isolde in unless bidden to.
Morgan's tail wilts when he sees the boy, glancing at Natasha before entering for a moment while the other young man watches his mother.
With senior witch does bid the other two to follow, and introduces them. The man is named Victor Pickle, and his wife is Selene. Like Victor, she has a mutation; a single, twisty horn growing from the left side of her forehead. In her lap is a bundle that she keeps rocking, but the child is either asleep or very quiet.
"Carly hasn't suckled for a day now," Selene whispers. "And she still won't open her eyes or cry." The exposed face of the baby looks normal, with no bizarre features or colors, just brown fur.
Natasha still says nothing, instead choosing to nod politely to each as she is introduced. Upon spotting the bundle and then the description of the child not behaving as children should behave it's her turn for her demeanor to 'dim' a bit, mostly seen through the slight flattening of her ears and the sag of the corners of her eyes.
Like Natasha, Morgan remains quiet, keeping place by the door so as not to crowd anyone. His eyes have settled on the child, watching it, his face a mask of professional neutrality.
Isolde kneels down and puts a finger against the side of the child's neck, and leans in to listen to her breathing. "I'm sorry," she tells them. "But… if you let me take her tonight, then I might be able to help her. But if I cannot, you will not see her again."
Natasha's eyes watch for movement in the child, any sign of breath at all. She knows the child may already be gone and it is the hope of her parents that keep them from seeing it. It is not an event she is unfamiliar with; children born to the tribe often did not survive their first season. It never gets easier.
There is a some movement shallow breathing. The Skeeks are both crying now, and Victor clasps Selene's shoulder and nods. The weeping mother offers up her child, and Isolde takes it and cradles her to her chest. "Come to Witch's Rock at dawn," she tells them, and turns stoically towards the door. "It's time for us to go," she tells the others.
Natasha nods once, then turns and walks towards the door with Isolde.
Morgan's head lowers, and then he nods slowly. "Good eve, Selene, Victor," he bids the couple before departing with the others.
Halfway back to the Gnarly Tree, Isolde breaks the silence. "I would like to offer the Gear Wizard a choice, Natasha. Do you give me leave to do so?" she asks.
"What choice would you offer him?" Natasha asks.
"A chance to atone," the witch says.
The younger Kadie has been keeping his eyes on the child as they walk, glancing over repeatedly, abandoning whatever thoughts occupied his mind, at least for now. When his mother speaks he looks up, keeping quiet.
Natasha looks to the small bundle Isolde carries. "A life for a life?" she asks the Kadie.
"A spirit, actually," Isolde says. "Carly was born without one. It is rare, but it happens."
"You may ask of him what you wish," Natasha says, "But I cannot promise he will be amenable to the request. A spirit could be crafted; Qing and I are capable of complex creation. But … time is not with us. It would take a couple days to work the ritual to create one complex enough to mirror what life generates naturally. The child may not survive that long."
"There is no time to call the coven either, so I will need you and Morgan to fill in," Isolde says, and glances to Natasha. "Ah… I'm afraid you'll have to be the Crone though."
"I … I can help create a spirit as well," Morgan puts in, nervously glancing at his mother before focusing on Natasha.
"Given my life there are days I feel centuries old. So … such is fitting," Natasha admits.
The return trek follows a different path, to bring them to the stockade at the edge of the Blacktail territory. It's a sturdy stone cottage, with a wooden roof and a single heavy door. A Lapi guard snaps to attention when the trio come into view. "Did you wish to see the prisoner, ma'am?" he asks Natasha.
"Yes. There is an urgent matter to attend to," Natasha tells the Lapi.
Morgan has fallen back so that he walked beside Natasha as they traveled, occasionally glancing her way and moving as if to speak, but aborting it as his gaze nervously flicks back to his mother. He keeps back when Natasha approaches the stockade, watching intently.
The guard takes a heavy key from around his neck and unlocks the door. "He's been pretty docile," he comments, after making sure the man isn't about to rush the door. Then he pulls it open.
"Thank you," Natasha tells the Lapi and steps through into the dimly lit cell.
There is straw over the stone floor, and a cot, table and heating stove, along with a water barrel. A plate of bread and cheese is set on the table, as well.
At the far end sits an old human in tattered robes with faded symbols embroidered upon them. He's slumped forward, elbows resting heavily on his knees and head lowered so that his stringy white hair falls forward, obscuring his face. "Have you come to be my executioner, Mage?" the human asks, his voice raspy and tired.
The youngest witch follows along, looking in curiously. He hadn't met the 'Gear Mage' personally, as the matter was long resolved by the time he learned of it. Now, he slowly walks forward until he's standing in the doorway, watching.
"I am not the one who has business with you today," Natasha says, her voice held neutral and calm. She waves towards Isolde and Morgan. "The town does."
"I am Isolde, the town witch," Isolde says. "This is my child, Morgan witch in training. Tell me, wizard; do you feel remorse for the lives you took?"
The human's head lifts up and he peers out at the witch with tired eyes that have sunken deep into a face that perhaps has seen one-too-many winters. "Their deaths are without purpose now," the human answers, "So, yes, I do. I am not a monster, I only wanted what was best for the land."
"You want to save people, then?" Isolde asks. "Is that still the case?"
"It is my duty," the man answers.
"Not what was best for Lily," Morgan mutters, eyes narrowing. He glances at Natasha and says, "Did he really believe he could solve generations of poisoned land by one ritual?"
The witch holds out the bundled, silent child to the man. "Hold her. She is Carly Pickle, and she was born without a spirit. A fate that all children born in Sylvania may have shared if you had succeeded, I'm afraid. Would you save her, if you could?"
"Has Qing given you any instruction on the concepts of warding? There are rituals that can wipe all trace of spirit magic from an area. It is an effective spell against undead. Now, imagine that spell with the power of hundreds, if not thousands of spirits powering it. It could rip all the remaining taint of the necromancer wars from these lands … in theory. But the cost … " Natasha tells Morgan, "Could be greater than the disease."
"I wouldn't have been there to see it; I suspect my spirit keeps me alive. So then, he has also attempting to kill me." Morgan glances at the man again, although his rancor is faint. Morgan never did seem to be the kind of boy to show much anger, at least not openly. "I'm familiar with warding," he adds after a moment, distracted.
The old man takes the small child and cradles her in his arms. "The children are always the ones who have to bear the costs of the mistakes of their forefathers," the old priest says as he brushes his fingertips lightly over the silent child's brow. "Children know not of wars. They know not of greed or hate. Yet they are always those who suffer the outcome. I would see even one life spared that if I could."
"Understand; it will mean your death, but also your legacy," Isolde tells the man. "Your spirit will become hers, and in time your abilities will manifest in her. She will become a witch, and go on to protect her community. But you do not really know what a witch is yet, or what Sylvania's true nature is. If you agree, I will show these things to you, and you can make your choice then."
"Death already waits for me," the old man says, "I can hear it whisper in the dark. I would choose a death that has meaning over one in a cell, forgotten. I am not afraid to die, only to die without meaning; a failure."
"I wonder where the line is, where good intentions become evil," Morgan murmurs to Natasha, or perhaps to himself. "Where fates collide."
"The line is here, Morgan, between our legs," Isolde says, taking back the child. "We stand at the fulcrum, one foot on either side, and maintain the balance. We will return tonight for this man. The invocation will be at midnight, in the forest cathedral, since I cannot take you or Natasha to the top of the rock as yet."
"The road to evil is paved with good intentions, Morgan. Think of Valicross, a man who sacrificed his family for power, when perhaps he first sought it to help them," Natasha notes in a quiet voice. "And this man sought to save Sylvania by using the spirits of those tainted by the touch of a demon to power a ritual to cleanse it. Many innocent people with families died at his hands. Talk to Leni about her brother sometime; one of this man's victims, all because he had the 'mark' of a monster."
"I'll inform Mage Qing and get ready, then. There's something I need to see to, but I'll be back, mother." He listens to Natasha as well, then nods slowly. "And here we sacrifice his life, for the life of a child. I guess it's something we feel, without a guide." His head tilts, and he looks down, then nods slowly. "Hmm," he breathes, lost in thought again.