Chapter 13: The Broken Witch
“How’s the mule?” the Bull King asked, sitting beside Nekayah at the head of a massive feasting table. His chair was a high-backed stone throne, cracked along the edges. His men were gathered around in the great hall of the alcazar, talking and laughing amongst themselves. They filled the stagnant air with raucous mirth as they stuffed their faces in celebration of a job well done. It turned out only a fraction of the Bull King’s men had gone out to raid their wagon while the others had been pillaging other parts of the countryside. A small kingdom’s bounty of roasted mule, breads, tarts, and cheeses, and were splayed out before them.
Servants dressed in tattered rags, bearing pink scars and purple bruises across their bodies, shuffled to and fro. The hurried to refill goblets and placed fresh trays of food on the table. Diego was among their lot, his dashing clothes replaced with sackcloth. He stole a glance once and a while at Nekayah as he went about his duties. At least he was alive, Nekayah though as she chewed on bit of mule.
“Well?” the Bull King asked.
“Cooked to perfection, my Lord,” Nekayah lied. It was tough and chewy, but it had been a long time since she last ate.
Without his helmet, the Bull King’s face was clear to see, but no less imposing. The man’s face was a stone, weathered and etched with so many deep lines it was like looking at the face of a tree.
The king grunted. “A bit too undercooked if you ask me.” Bits of food sprayed from his mouth as he talked. “They eat meat raw in your lands, do they?”
“Not particularly, no.”
The Bull King, disappointed by Nekayah’s answer, shrugged and took another bite. “Tell me more about this place you came from. I’m curious.”
“It’s a land of ferocious river serpents and talking birds. It’s a land of towering obelisks, where winter never comes. A place far better than here.”
The Bull King tore a hunk of bread with his mouth. Despite asking the question, he only seemed half-interested. “No winter, huh? Sounds nice.”
“Mmm…” It had been years, but her mind’s eye could still see every detail of her verdant Abyssinia. Along with those pastoral memories came bitter-sweet nostalgia, and a longing that ached in the core of her withered heart.
“My Lord,” a frail voice called from behind. Nekayah stiffened. The voice sounded familiar.
She turned around to see who had just spoke. With long wheat-blonde hair and one icy blue eye, she walked towards the two of them at the table. Her other eye was obscured behind a leather eye-patch. A scar stretched from the top of her brow to her cheek, straight across the covered socket. A grizzly wound it must have been. Behind her was a heavy-set man carrying the chest from the wagon.
“The key could not be found,” the blonde woman said, “but we unlocked the chest nevertheless.”
The Bull King swallowed his mouthful of bread and smiled. “Ah, my sweet Luciana, you have done well.” He waved a hand at the portly chest-bearer. He waddled over and set the chest down on the table in front of his master, opened it, then pulled out a shining golden crucifix that stood upright on a marble base. Rubies encrusted its three tips, sparkling like red, wrathful stars encased in ice. The Bull King’s eyes widened. “Holy Mother of God…”
Luciana looked at Nekayah with her one good eye. “I see you had no trouble acquiring the vessel.”
The Bull King rubbed Nekayah’s shoulder with one large hand. “She’s prettier than you said she’d be.” His hand descended and grabbed at her breast, squeezing so hard that it hurt. Nekayah pushed his hand away and wrapped her arms around herself tightly in defense. The brute laughed in response. “Ha! A fighter!”
“It’s best not to harm her too much,” Luciana said. “We need her in healthy condition.”
The king ceased laughing and nodded at the blonde woman’s words.
“Who are you?” Nekayah finally asked, looking at the blonde. “I know your voice.”
Luciana nodded, curling her lips into an off-putting smile. “You have, indeed. We spoke, those many weeks ago during that beautiful full moon, and by that church in the village. I saw you then as clearly as I see you now. I’m happy to finally meet you in the flesh.”
Nekayah had no appetite for her mocking politeness. “You’re a necromancer!”
“Surprised? You thought you were the only one?”
“Much of my success I owe to Luciana,” the Bull King interjected. “We found her here when we first took the fortress. She’s a talented soothsayer—visions and such. She even foretold your arrival.”
Nekayah raised an eyebrow. “Did she?”
“My powers are great,” Luciana said, “but they pale in comparison to what you can do. I am an acolyte of death, but you...you’re practically her daughter.”
Luciana put a hand over her mouth. “Oh, nothing. Forgive my rambling.”
Nekayah clenched her hands into fists and grimaced. “Quit your games, witch! What did you mean?”
Nekayah’s appetite had been spoiled, replaced with nauseating unease. She was constantly being stared at, and she could feel it even when she turned away. That damned eye—that prying cyclopean orb so fixated on her that it burned a whole into her mind.
Luciana gently gripped Nekayah’s hand. “You have a strong connection to her.”
“Her?” Nekayah echoed.
“Our Almighty Goddess.” Luciana lowered her voice to a hissing whisper. “Our Mother Beyond the Veil. The Black Goat! The Womb of Chaos!” She paused, finding the courage to speak more, then finally said those profane words Nekayah dreaded to hear. “Shub-Nigurath!”
Nekayah stood up fast, knocking back her stool. She hadn’t heard that name in years, that name that sent a slithering wet tendril of cold dread down her spine. “Don’t you dare speak her name!” The candles in the chandelier went dim, and the dank air curled around them in a sudden breeze. The men in dining hall all stared up at the phenomenon, gasping, struck with primal fear. Servants and soldiers alike started to retreat from the room, while others stared at the witches at the head of the table. More than a few made the sign of the cross over themselves, for they knew the devil was close upon them.
Luciana smiled and chuckled slightly, betraying her amusement. “You see, dear King? She is the one! She is the one we’ve been waiting for! The Mother’s presence is strong in her!”
The Bull King, staring up at the candles, mouth agape in bewilderment, grunted in agreement.
“If you are the same woman I spoke with on the road,” Nekayah seethed, “then you must also know I want nothing more than to sever my pact with her! I am of no use to you or anyone!” She grabbed Luciana by her collar. The Abyssinian was tired of her mocking smiles and knowing gazes. She would not suffer this woman’s games any longer. “If you have any appreciation for your life you will tell me everything you know! Now!”
Nekayah’s aggression only made the blonde’s damned smile stretch even wider. “Yes! Show me that icy fire! Show me her majesty!”
“Enough!” The Bull King roared. His voice thundered loud enough to snuff out the storm brewing in his hall.
Luciana pouted like a child whose toys were just taken from her. “Very well. I’m quite tired, anyway. I shall retire for the night.” She pried Nekayah’s fingers off her collar and stepped back. “If you’ll excuse me.”
Nekayah sat rubbing her fingers, trembling. Her eyes flitted around looking at grown men—killers and thieves—shifting uneasily in their seats, staring back at her, stricken with dreadful awe. It was a common effect she had on people, but for once she now shared their disbelief.
Another witch, not a hallucination, not a vision, but a flesh and blood woman who knew what she knew, and more.
The rough, calloused hand of the Bull King grabbed her shoulder once again. “Luciana enjoys aggravating people.”
“So I noticed.”
“She is a beauty, though, despite her flaws.” The man’s hands were becoming more adventurous, venturing further south to fondle Nekayah’s breasts. “I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world, until I saw you.” He squeezed tight and whispered in her ear. “I promised her I would not hurt you, but that depends on how much you struggle.”
Nekayah’s body shuddered from his touch, and when she tried to turn away, the brute pulled her back, tugging her hard.
“No…” she began. Her face twisted in disgust. “Please…” Despite her protests, however, the brute did not stop. His men started to jeer and hoot, salivating with perverted anticipation. The brute pinched and grabbed until Nekayah could not bear it any longer. “Unhand me!” She struck the giant in the chin with a closed fist. All fell silent in the dining hall and all eyes turned to the two of them.
“You dare to strike me?” the Bull King asked, calm and collected.
“I do!” Nekayah spat. “I may be your prisoner, but I am not your concubine! Go see the one-eyed bitch for that!”
The men in the hall waited to see how their leader would respond. They’d never seen anyone show such disrespect…and live.
“Break the black bitch’s arms!” shouted one bandit.
“Crush’er skull in!” suggested another. From there it became a contest to see which man could suggest the most horrific torture.
“Leave us!” the Bull Kind shouted. Without hesitation, the bandits all at once shut their mouths. They, along with the servants, filed out of the feasting hall, leaving the two alone in that giant empty space.
Nekayah stood up from the table and stared down the brute. While he sat, she could look at him at eye-level, but then he stood up, and she was dwarfed by more than two feet of towering muscle.
“I could do what they say,” he said. “I could break your arms and legs, then toss you to my men and let them each have a turn with you. Would you like that?”
“It would be heaven compared to spending one more moment being touched by you!” Nekayah had no desire to hold her tongue. Her spiteful words came pouring out freely like water. He wouldn’t kill her, he couldn’t. She knew that much. Whatever plan he and the blonde witch had, they needed her alive.
The Bull King laughed. “You’re used to getting your way, aren’t you? You talk like you have power, and if what Luciana says is true, then you do. But nothing vexes me more than a mouthy cunt.”
Nekayah drew her dagger and lunged at the giant, but all it took was a quick and massive backhand to knock the woman crashing into the floor. The dagger still left a scratch, though.
“You hurt my hand,” the warlord said, looking at the blood. “I think I’ll hurt yours.”
In an instant, the hulking man snatched both of the woman’s hands, yanking her off the ground. Nekayah shouted and kicked, but before she could find the strength to pull herself free, she felt a searing pain, as her hands crackled and crunched like bundles of dry twigs. The pain rushed over her so fast she could not help but scream. Shrill and long, it echoed across the dining hall. She cursed herself in that instant for giving him the satisfaction.
After a long, excruciating moment, the Bull King finally let go, and the Abyssinian crumpled onto the table.
Laughing, the brute picked up his golden cross, and walked away, leaving the woman lying on the table. She was left alone, screaming at the man who crippled her hands.
The Abyssinian’s voice grew sore and gargled with snot, spittle, and blood that trickled from her nose. She sprayed the foamy mixture onto the table through clenched teeth. Nekayah lifted her head slightly to scan the emptiness of the great hall. Diego was nowhere to be seen. He had left with the other servants, and for that, she was thankful, for she had never looked so pitiful before in her entire life.
But then she heard his voice—a whisper from behind the Bull King’s massive throne.
“I will kill him. I promise you that.”