Cymara knew she was close when the forest changed. The animal sounds she had heard along the way were absent and the trees were stunted. Even the light — though the foliage was sparse — seemed diminished, polluted.
Branches of a dead tree barred her path. Cymara cleared them away with her axe and pressed on. Before long, she saw the thrones on a small rise. Qarin the Witch-Queen sat in the grandest throne. The two bone-wrought chairs flanking her were empty, as they had been for years.
Gazing on the Witch-Queen, Cymara’s pulse quickened. She reminded herself of the sacrifices she’d made to get here. Giving up now would make them be in vain and forever destroy her hope of a life with Alain. Cymara traced the outline of the amulet under her tunic. That piece of protective magic and a vague idea of where to search for the Queen were all her inheritance had brought in trade. It didn’t feel like enough.
She had thought to approach from behind and take Qarin by surprise. But the path led straight to the thrones and every attempt she made to forge a new path was thwarted by the trees. She realized this was not ill fortune but some magic of the Queen’s domain. Only by daring to face her directly could Cymara proceed.
The Queen watched her approach but made no move, uttered no sound. Moments later, Cymara stood on the rise, close enough to smell Qarin’s decay.
“Welcome,” the Witch-Queen said. “Few come here, fewer idly.”
Cymara focused on breathing steadily. In. Out. In. “I have a request.”
Qarin smiled thinly. “Fewer still come with a request.”
“You have a claim on Alain of Myrdd. A claim you will not be able to consummate. I request you release him from it.”
“Are you a seer?”
The question surprised Cymara, but she saw no harm in answering. “No.”
“Then don’t presume to tell me what claims I will and will not be able to consummate. Alain of Myrdd was granted to me by his parents to be the consort of my eldest daughter. I will not release him.”
Cymara’s eyes flicked to the vacant thrones where Qarin’s own consort and her only child, a son who died in battle, had once sat.
“And why do you care, daughter?”
Cymara laughed. “I am not your daughter.”
“But you could be. I need no consort, no blood offspring, to mold an heir. A willing woman could fill that role. She could sit beside me, and her consort as well.” Qarin leaned slightly forward. “You come here for love.” The word sounded foul to Cymara in this place. “I can offer you something better than love.”
“Dark magic and a creepy throne?”
“No, Cymara.” The girl flinched; she had not spoken her name. “Eternal faithfulness. The claim my daughter will hold on this man will be unbreakable. Released from it, he would be responsible to no promises other than those made by words.”
Cymara stood still as Qarin rose. She thought again of the cost of her quest. Would it feel worth it if she succeeded now, loved Alain for a time, and lost him?
“Come to my side, Cymara. You will have this man and he will not be able to love another. He won’t even wish to love another. No other woman has such certainty.”
Cymara weighed the axe in her hand, weighed the future.
“What you offer,” she said at last, “is not love. It’s slavery.”
The Witch-Queen’s eyes narrowed. “Fool!” she cried.
Cymara lunged towards her, axe held high. Qarin raised her hands and Cymara felt a jolt as her amulet deflected the energy of the Queen’s first strike. Now it was spent, a worthless piece of metal.
Qarin had only an instant to look surprised that her opponent had not been felled. Cymara gave the axe a fierce swing. The Queen’s headless body collapsed.
The forest did not spring instantly back to life, but the grayness of the place lifted. The Witch-Queen was dead and her daughter’s claim nullified.
Cymara put her axe away and began the journey back to Myrdd. There she would see Alain and ask for his hand, for as long as they both wished to be one.
Michael Haynes lives in Ohio with his wife and children. He enjoys writing and reading, particularly science fiction, fantasy and mystery. He also likes watching movies, going to hockey games (go Jackets!), and cooking. He blogs regularly at http://www.michaelhaynes.info about writing and whatever else crosses his mind.