In the days that followed Grandmother’s death, the village wives and daughters sat with me. They made sure I ate, and tried to keep Grandmother’s hut tidy. Her hut, my home, as I held onto her walking stick I realized that everything around me was Grandmother’s. I had so little and so much respect to ever think that these things were now mine. I was too numb to realize that I was to take Grandmother’s place as soothsayer for the village.
The hut was small, a single bed curtained off from the main room that contained only a large table and two chairs. I had slept all these years on the floor before the hearth, and still considered the small cot to be Grandmother’s, not mine to sleep in. Maybe it was I hoped that one morning I’d awake and I’d see Grandmother, bent over, making up her cot, or chopping vegetables, checking the bundles of herbs that dangled from the ceiling for dryness and making sure they had not grown mold. Even with a fire in the hearth, and my blankets, and even Dynill, one of the village wives, with me, the hut just seemed empty, and too big.
I tried to be like Grandmother, I tried to wake up, to make breakfast, to begin on a letipa, a general stock from which potions, salves, or even dinner can be made from. It simmers all day, making the hut smell of rosemary and sage. I remember to feed Grandmother’s birds, she has several small finches in a cage that peep and twitter cheerfully. Grandmother’s old cat, Soer, has been missing since Grandmother’s death. The village men tried to find him, but they won’t travel too deep into the woods, Grandmother’s hut is as far as they will go.
Dynill, was a little older than me, probably the closest thing I had to a friend. She was married and pregnant with her first child. She sat with me the most. I realized that Grandmother had chosen her husband for her, and that in a few short months I will be helping bring Dynill’s child into the world. I burst into fresh tears, already dreading my possible failure. There was no way I could be like Grandmother.
Dynill chatted constantly, about other wives, about the men, about her upcoming baby, and though I tried to listen, to be attentive to her, I had the oddest feeling of being watched. It was night, the finches had bedded down for the night in their nest boxes, Soer’s bed by the pestle and mortar was still empty, Grandmother’s bed was made up. Dynill sat in Grandmother’s rocking chair, rocking and knitting. The rhythmic creak of the rocker was the only other sound, but I still had the odd feeling. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I stood, my shawl wrapped around my shoulders, held with one hand, while I carried Grandmother’s walking stick. It was a staff of smooth driftwood, painted and carved with symbols to please the Earth Mother.
I slowly opened the door, I don’t think Dynill even noticed I got up as her talking did not even change tempo. I saw nothing in the darkness, and had to wait a moment for my eyes to adjust to the night. Slowly stepping outside the hut I looked down the path that led to the village, I could not see the village but I could see the torches that lit the streets. No one was coming down the path.
“Hello?” I called anyway. The night was chilly, and I pulled the shawl tighter, an involuntary shiver going down my spine. I walked out of the hut and slowly began to walk around it. The creatures of the forest were Grandmother and I’s friends, but they were wary of the villagers, perhaps one needed help and did not want to come near the hut for Dynill’s presence.
After nearly circling the hut, I saw no one, no animal in need, and then the feeling of being watched grew so overwhelming that I spun, gripping Grandmother’s walking stick tightly, and behind me was a man. I could barely make out anything distinguishing about him, other than he was a man, for all I knew he was shadows solidified. My first impulse was to scream, and I was certain I tried, but all that exited my mouth was a pathetic squeak. He reached out for me, and suddenly my senses came back to me, I swung Grandmother’s walking stick, not at his face or hands, but low, it connected solidly with his shin. I barely heard the muttered swearing under his breath as I tried to bolt for the safety of Grandmother’s hut, but smacked into something was like a large rock had jutted up in front of me. I stumbled backwards, noticing another man, not as tall as the one I nailed in the shin, but looking the same, like shadows solidified.
Grandmother’s walking stick was wrenched from my hand and suddenly my arm was twisted up behind me in a pain I didn’t know existed. I whimpered, afraid that the man who had my wrist would break my arm for clocking him in the shin.
“Raziel, let her go, she’s just a little girl,” said the second shadow, the one whose chest I’d bounced off of. I could feel the grip on my wrist tighten, my shoulder was on fire, my hand was nearly numb, but I was released and shoved towards the second shadow.
The second shadow caught me, and raised a hand, making me wince, thinking I was about to be struck, but he dropped his hood, suddenly he wasn’t shadow anymore. I realized who these men were, these men were the personal bodyguard of King Saerus Dragonthorn, the hoods they wore were magic, created by the Royal Wizard Gerfast. The second shadow was a young man, maybe only half a dozen years older than me, with a clean shaven face, and shortly cropped blonde hair. His blue eyes were dark, but seemed older, experienced. He was dressed all in black, though really did not need to since the hood made him appear as shadow. A bow and a quiver of arrows was slung on his back. A long sword hung on one hip.
“My name is Ezekiel, that is my brother Raziel,” he pointed to the first shadow, and I meant to give a quick glance at him over my shoulder. Raziel had removed his own hood revealing a face possibly a dozen years older than me, and a mane of dark brown, maybe black hair. His eyes a vivid green that seemed to bore into my soul, flay it open, and steal any secrets I might have had there. He wore a short, neatly trimmed beard that was bare where a jagged scar started on his cheek and ended nearly into his collar. Like his brother, Raziel wore entirely black, but his weaponry was different. He looked like he was ready to fight an army completely by himself. His solid chest was crossed with throwing knives, he carried two short swords on his back, and a fanged mace on each hip. One thing caught my eye, around one wrist was a wide ribbon, like a girl would wear in her hair, it was ragged and faded, probably had been red at one time, the loose ends hung down. He was the most scary, intimidating man I’d ever seen. He gave no greeting only stared at me, making my skin crawl.
“We’ve come to seek council from the witch of these woods,” Ezekiel stated, his voice was deep, but kind. I found myself moving to him because it meant I was moving away from his brother. I looked at Ezekiel as he spoke, but didn’t want to take my eyes from Raziel, he still held Grandmother’s walking stick. It looked no more than a broomstick in his hand. He lifted it and I was afraid he was going to snap it over his knee, but he held it out to me. I reluctantly took it back from him, careful to keep my hands away from his, as if he was the plague itself.
“Gran-grandmother?” I stammered, “You seek Grandmother?” There was no way I was going to help these men as a soothsayer. I’m certain that whatever they sought to know, if I told them wrong, Raziel would make me feel the consequences.
“We wish an audience with Entia,” said a voice, once again behind me. A mountain of a man stood there, wearing the shadow hood. He was even larger than Raziel but I didn’t feel this overwhelming sensation of anger from him as I did from the horrible brother. The man lowered his hood, revealing a man with graying hair and beard, wrinkles around his eyes, skin like leather, dressed in black. He carried a large sword, taller than me on his back. Spikes were down his arms and the back of his gauntlets. He didn’t appear to have any other weapons unless the length of chain coiled on his hip was also a weapon. “I am Hammael, and these are my sons, miss?”
“Hazel,” I squeaked my name. I sagged like all the air had been let out of me. “I’m so sorry for you to have made this journey for naught,” I realized I was babbling. I felt a relief that the father had arrived, though Ezekiel had seemed to have saved me from Raziel hurting me worse, Raziel was larger than his brother, in combat I’m certain Ezekiel could not stop his brother’s wrath. “Grandmother has passed onto the next world.” I indicated the pile of ashes that had been her funeral pyre. I watched in awe as the large brother moved swiftly, and utterly silent, with a grace I’d only seen cats and deer and dancers contain, he squatted down and lifted some ash, rubbing it between his gloved fingers.
“This pyre is several days old, possibly a week or more,” Raziel spoke and I felt myself get weak in the knees, I swore I had just heard the voice of the gods.
“Miss Hazel, are you a witch?” Hammael asked, his voice bore no conviction. Some were afraid of us, thought us evil, but Grandmother had never hurt anyone, had never cursed anyone, and taught me to always help those in need. I was terrified at the thought that first persons who would come to me in need would be the king’s personal bodyguards.
“I’m hardly an apprentice,” I managed to say without hesitation. Hammael smiled warmly at me, but his next words nearly made me faint.
“His Majesty will have to make due with you,” Hammael said and I truly went weak in the knees. If it hadn’t been for Grandmother’s walking stick and Ezekiel’s hand on my arm to hold me up, I’d have been a pile of oversized skirts and shawl on the ground. The idea of fainting in front of Raziel steeled my resolve slightly and I threw the horrid one a glance over my shoulder as I moved plead my case to Hammael I was not a proper soothsayer, I saw the smirk on Raziel’s face, I wanted to use Grandmother’s walking stick to knock it off him, but I doubted I’d even get the stick raised before I’d be back in the nasty twisted arm lock.
“Sir,” I began, “I am not certain I can fulfill any request that His Majesty wishes of me, I am not my grandmother.”
“She’s right,” Raziel’s deep baritone came from behind me. “She’s just a girl, father, practically still a child.” I found my cheeks reddening at his words and bowed my head, hoping my hair, a tangled mess of red waves would hide it. I did feel like a child, though I had already crossed the boundary between child and woman a few years ago with the arrival of the monthly ritual of roses. I did not feel like an adult and I felt so tiny in the presence of these large men.
I finally heard the sound of hooves on the path to Grandmother’s hut and realized that these men were not taking me to King Saerus, but had escorted him here. I suddenly stopped walking, frozen in fear, unable to take another step. King Saerus was here. I could make potions, I could make salves, I could make dinner, but I had no clue as to how to behave in the presence of royalty. I turned, planning on running, running away, be a wild woman of the woods, anything was better than facing King Saerus. Raziel’s broad chest was now in front of me, I didn’t even make it to his shoulder in height. I looked up, and he was gazing down at me. Face passive, but the eyes held me, I felt like a mouse in front of a lion. Truly facing Raziel was worse than King Saerus. I put my back to him, which felt like a bad idea, and walked forward.