A Witch is called by the King to serve him.
Ash was there to greet me outside the camp of men. He held me gently, and I did not struggle in his embrace, though I was sure he would release me if I pulled back. When he spoke, his voice was the same as I remembered from the cottage. Everything else had changed, but not that. Not his love for me, the daughter of the woman he loved. I could hear it in that soft voice.
"I looked for you after. We all did. I was sure you were still alive, when we found where you buried her, and the Whisper carried no word of your soul's passing."
He did not ask me where I had gone, or why I had not found him when he came looking for me. He asked me no questions at all, and I was only a little sorry. He had always been full of chatter when he came to visit us, as if to make up for the time he had spent alone. I saw the lines in his face made from care and pain, and the streaks of grey amidst the brown of his hair.
I was glad when he let me go.
I do not think what he saw on my face pleased him, for the lines on his face grew deeper as he looked at me.
"I would be honored if you would escort me to the king, brother." I had no real right to claim him brother, I had not even completed my apprenticeship, but I could not call him Ash. That had been what she called him.
I would be honored, for Ash-on-the-Mountain-Slope was among the wisest and most learned of the druids. I recalled enough of human custom to know it would create difficulties if a stranger attempted to approach a man of noble rank without introduction, much less the highest ranked noble in this land. At best, it could take days to be granted an audience. At worst, I could be thrown out of the camp entirely if I managed to make my demands obnoxious enough. That last would certainly slow my mission down, and I did not care to stay around men any longer than necessary. And Ash had loved my mother.
"It is my honor, sister."
We were not the brother and sister we named each other. Not as men, or even elves and dwarf-kind counted such. Not by blood, but it was more than a simple title of courtesy between witches and druids, it was a claim of - and a demand for - equality. I had demanded the right to be heard as an equal, as a person deserving of respect, to one who was perhaps the greatest druid of his generation. He should have slapped me down for my impertinence, but he hadn't so much as blinked. I thought of this as Ash guided me through the camp to the King.
The priests claim that we are all children of the First Mother, brothers and sisters in a way that is stronger than mere blood. That connectivity is what permitted him to find me in a camp than numbered in the tens of thousands. It was how he knew I was coming at all. On my home ground I could have masked my presence, even from him, but so far from the land I knew such masking would be difficult, if not impossible. It did not stop me from wanting to try, wanting to turn around and go back home. It was a foolishness unbefitting an apprentice witch.
I remembered my mother, cool and serene and beautiful as she met the man who had been king before the king I was to meet now. It was when I was very young, no more than five, but I remembered. My stomach fluttered. I did not have Mother's serenity, her beauty, or her power, and I did not like confrontations. The King would not like what I had to say to him, and I wondered if he would kill me as the villagers of our home had killed Mother. I did not want to die.
The presence of druids in the armed camp had been the first hopeful sign since beginning my journey more than a week ago. I did not think they would willingly permit the king to kill me, whatever I said to him, and they held powers I did not.
Ash halted in front of a tent that was larger than the cottage I grew up in. He spoke briefly with the guards around the tent. I began breathing exercises used to calm and quiet the mind. I did not want to let the men inside the tent know that I was afraid - and angry. As my mother had taught, I would pretend the serenity I did not possess, until the pretense became reality.
The guard tried to put Ash off, but he had insisted. Another man came out of the tent. He was of higher rank than the first, judging from the layers of ornate braid on his shoulders and chest. Ash spoke to him familiarly, and I did not listen to the words.
It was as if the entire world became still about me and I could hear the heart of the earth beat as I had not since the King's call first came. It vibrated up through the soles of my feet to the top of my head. I felt like a struck bell. It was all I could hear, all I could feel. Then it was gone, leaving only the task ahead.
Ash shivered, and paused for a moment, before concluding, "...the High-King will want to see her, Captain-Commander."
The Captain-Commander eyed me doubtfully, taking in my shoeless, dirty feet, my much mended clothing, rather the worse for wear for having been my only set of clothes for the nine-day march here and my hair with its ragged ends, cut courtesy of the knife tucked inside my coat. Taking in my youth. He shrugged.
"Anyone else druid, and I would demand if this were some sort of joke," he said, turning back to Ash. "Your kind has a reputation for making lessons of that sort of thing. I will only warn you, one vassal to another, that His Majesty is not in the best of tempers. I would advise you to return later."
Ash shook his head. "Now, please. It will not get better for the waiting, and His Majesty is rarely in good humor these days. I had not dared hope for such when I came here tonight, and am thus not disappointed."
I wondered at that phrasing - surely he could not know the answer I intended to give the King. What did he expect me to say, that he would rather I meet the King when he is feeling generous?
In spite of his light words I thought that Ash grew apprehensive at the officer's words. It was well that he did not give into the Captain-Commander's suggestion, as I would have persisted without his help.
The Captain Commander gave another of those slight shrugs and directed a pair of guards to escort the two of us in and continued on whatever errand had brought him out of the tent in the first place. We threaded our way through here rooms - I supposed they would be considered rooms, even though we were inside a tent - till wee reached the king.
He was a dark, slender man, rather more stern than handsome, but well dressed in a tunic of fine blue silk, embroidered in gold. The shirt under it was silk as well, a darker shade of blue than the tunic. He had black velvet trousers and fine riding boots with gold spurs. His only jewelry was a heavy gold ring set with a ruby the size of my thumbnail, and a golden circlet on his brow, inset with the oak leaf that is the sign of the royal house. I would have recognized him as the King even without the circlet. The call that had pulled me from my forest home, dragged me a hundred leagues to answer, centered on this man; he could not have hidden from me if he had wished to. Only the King has the ability to call a Witch like a dog, and have her answer. It is a part of the agreement that was made between our kind and his, and so long as the agreement stands, the King will be able to call me to him.
The King stood over at table of heavy oak, covered in maps with markers of colored stone. He looked up from studying the maps to watch us enter. He kept his eyes focused on Ash and barely seemed to see me or the guards that escorted us. The man with him was almost two hands taller, and very much broader through the shoulders. He wore dark grey leathers, and his equally grey hair was held back in a tail at the nape of his neck. He watched all of us, giving an impression of a man looking in every direction at once, prepared for an attack at any moment. The king dismissed our escort.
"What news do you bring me tonight, Druid Ash? Bad, I expect. It is all bad these days, although my friend here doesn't approve of my saying so aloud. Thinks it's bad for troop moral. Well, I sent the guards out first, and after meeting with my nobles I want to say what I really think to someone. What is it this time? The elves now demand a quarter of my kingdom, instead of a royal grant and a seat on the High Council? Has the enemy tied the weather in knots so that the harvest will fail three years in a row instead of just two? Raiders and slavers from the Broken Islands?" He cut himself off and grimaced. His tone became a little less acid, although he did not apologize. "It is not your fault. Is this one of your female druids? She looks quite young. I take it she's the reason you brave my ill temper. Well, druid-girl. Speak."
I had forgotten how much noise men could make and yet say nothing at all. I stepped in front of Ash as the king fell silent. Perhaps he expected a bow or some such, but even if I knew how I would not have after his discourtesy. "You have called for the Witch of the western lands, but she is dead, ten years gone. I, her apprentice, come in her place. No one more fit is left to answer the call." I would not have come at all, given the choice.
"I have called, because the guard is not kept as the agreement requires. You way you were her sworn apprentice? You could not have been more than three or four when she died, if she died when you said." His tone grew scornful. "Do you not have the skill to keep the wards? Did the Witch die before she could teach you?"
"I was taught," I said, returning scorn with contempt. "It is not a matter of skill. No witch will stay where she is not welcome. You say I have violated the agreement? It is you have violated it. As the Witch protects the land from outsiders, so does the King guard the Witch, provide her with safe haven. The western lands rejected the presence of the Witch when the village where she lived hunted her down and killed her because they thought her magic was evil." She would not fight them, because she did not want to hurt them. They were her people even when they killed her. At first she did not believe they would harm her. She still thought they were her friends, and by the time she learned different it was too late for her to run. "The agreement is void."
"I am King here. I speak for the men of this country, which includes the western lands, and they bend knee to me. As heir to the Witch, you listen when I speak, and I say that you belong to the western lands and you have not fulfilled the oaths you took as an apprentice. I regret your loss," his tone grew no softer, and I could not tell if his heart held regret or only expediency, "but it does not change your responsibilities."
"Your people have spoken for you, Adryan-King. Whatever words you speak now, it matters not. The Witch is dead, and there will be no other to take her place. I have come only to tell you this. Do not speak to me of responsibilities. Where were you when my mother died? Playing soldier in your father's palace?"
"You will show respect -" snarled the king's bodyguard. I went on as though he had not even spoken, my hate for a king who could not be bothered with me until I inconvenienced him giving me the courage to spit those words in his face.
"A pity you could not be bothered to examine the hearts of the people you claim to speak for, that you might see the evil there. The agreement is void. Call again, and you will hear only the wind in answer."
Ash did not speak to me until we were back outside, and then it was only to suggest I accompany him to the area of the camps set aside fore the druids. His voice was as even as it had been when he convinced the king that killing me would certainly render the agreement void. I was the only possible heir left, the only one who could renew the wards that had once guarded the land. If I were dead, the king's problems would only grow greater, not less. Instead, the king demanded that I be removed from his sight until I came to my senses, with the implication that Ash should not show his own face until I had done so. I think he would have liked to demand it outright to Ash, but did not quite dare.
If anything, Ash was angrier with me than the King was. Unlike the king, Ash had more than enough power to make his invitation a requirement. Ash could forbid the earth to carry me anywhere outside of the camp. I had seen him do so to full druids, and he could only have grown more powerful since I had last seen him. I would not have had a chance. I would like to say I defied him anyway, but the truth is that I did not quite dare do so, any more than the king had.
For the most part the men of the camps were bedded down for the night. Cook fires were banked and the smell of dinner - stew - was difficult to detect underneath the scent of unwashed bodies, wet leather, pipe smoke and wood smoke, and the scents that drifted in from the jakes and the horse lines.
Small boys of no more than twelve or thirteen passed through the camp, lighting torches. I wondered why they bothered. It seemed a waste, ruining the night vision of any guard who gazed at them overlong and outlining targets to attackers besides.
The place the druids kept to looked little like the rest of the camp. In the center there was but a single tent, large enough to hold perhaps a dozen people. Circling the tent were about thirty hammocks of woven rope, held up by pairs of poles and covered in spidersilk netting to keep off the bugs. I wondered what the tent was for - the druids would sleep in the hammocks. Ash had slept so even when visiting us, in all but the worst weather. He preferred the open air to the shelter of stone walls and a solid roof. There were almost fifty paces of empty space between the last soldier's tent and the first druid's hammock.
"The tent holds books, maps, magical supplies, such things as need protection from the elements," said Ash, though I had not asked. "It also provides a modicum of privacy for meetings."
The hammocks held only a handful of sleepers, and there was not enough room in the tent to hide the number of people that ought to be present. "Where are the others?" I asked.
"Working," he said.
Not terribly helpful, but then I was not really interested in the answer to that puzzle. I would rather have an answer to the puzzle of how, now that the agreement was formally severed, I was to return to my home.
"As much as I would like to discuss what just happened in the King's tent," Ash said, "I have matters to attend to that will not wait. I will talk to you in the morning, and give both of us time for our blood to cool. I am too angry with you right now to speak calmly, and you are too full of hate. You have already proved that you will not respond to bullying - even when performed by a King. Tonight I ask only that you think on the consequences of your decision."
He strode over to the tent flap, paused in the act of opening it, then added, "I trust you will not humiliate either of us by trying to run away. I would hate to have to bespell you, but I will if it becomes necessary."
How dare he! I glared at the tent, the object of my wrath having vanished within. It was not a question of running away. I merely wished to leave this miserable, stinking camp and return home. He had no right to keep me here.