The Witch of Castile

By Donovan Douglas-Ramsey Hall All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Horror

Chapter 8: The Last Dance

Men strutted around the center of village wearing their brightest tunics, and girl’s pranced with red and white ribbons braided in their hair. Garlands of pink flowers decorated storefronts and stalls. Every store owner and craftsman had a stall set up in the village square, crying over the buzz of mirthful noise, enticing people to look at their wares. Marzipan! Marzipan! Shirtless boys fought in the streets with wooden swords, pretending to be knights while guitarists played to the beat of thronging masses. Near the far end of the square by the cathedral, was a massive wooden pole wrapped in flower garlands.

Fernando had his stall set up with racks and racks of sweet buns. He’d put whole day’s and night’s worth of effort into baking them, and now smelled of rich butter and honey. Exhausted, he sat in his chair while he watched his daughter serve the customers.

Sofia was quick with her work, taking coins and divvying out sweet buns to all the outstretched hands. It was a frenzy and more than once did a small, nimble hand snatch a bun without paying. But Sofia, burdened by the masses of villagers, could only shout after them.

“Don’t mind the little ones,” Fernando said, half asleep in his chair.

Sofia huffed. “Yes, father.”

Then something flickered in the corner of Sofia’s vision. She turned to look at the crowd mingling in the square. The girl swore she saw that telltale mahogany face somewhere among all her smiling neighbors, but when she scanned the crowd, she saw no one she hadn’t seen a hundred times before.

She’s long gone by now. Sofia remembered watching Nekayah leave at the crack of dawn, drawing her shawl low over her face and stepping onto that dirt road with barely a goodbye.

It was for the best, of course. She was grateful for the woman’s help, she really was, and God knows she would have been dead otherwise. Still, though, she could not ignore how otherworldly that woman seemed...and the things they did—no, it was best not to think about it.

“You alright, dear?” Fernando asked.

“Oh!” A bun had slipped through her hands as her mind, mired in thought, reluctantly pulled itself away from those obscene memories. She reached for a fresh bun, hastily handing it over to a customer. “Pardon my clumsiness.”

The evening came and a cool wind came with it. As the sky darkened to a deep shade of purple, candles, torches and lanterns were lit, casting everything in the square in a vibrant, fiery orange light.

“It’s a good festival this year,” Fernando said.

“It’s a good festival every year,” Sofia replied, smiling.

Fernando shook his head. “When you get to be my age, you’ll start to feel the festival catch you by surprise, and it’ll leave just as quickly. They run together in your head like a blur. But this one now, this one is very special.”

“Why do you say that?”

Fernando hugged Sofia gently. Her father smelled like raisins and wheat bread. “This is the festival where my daughter was saved.” Fernando began to struggle with his words as tears welled up in his eyes. “We’ve been blessed. I hope God protects that woman. I couldn’t thank her enough.”

“There, there...” Sofia cooed, rubbing her father’s shoulder. “Don’t cry. We still have customers coming.”

Fernando blinked and wiped away his tears. “Right… Business-minded, just like your old man. Your mother would be proud.”

“Thank you, father.”

Fernando cleared his throat. “Alright then, you better get back to it. I need to get a drink.” Fernando left Sofia to deal with the few remaining customers, while he stood to his feet and shuffled off.

Eventually, the last customer, the cobbler’s wife, was given her tenth bun of the evening. Her fat, round face lit up with joy as it had the last nine times, and she waddled away, gobbling down the treat. No one else came. Sofia was all alone.

The townsfolk had found new obsessions now that their bellies were full from eating all day. They became enamored with drinking and dancing with abandon, and for a moral christian village, the levels of debauchery rose to impressive levels. Drunken men grabbed at giggling young women, chasing them around the square, while others were collapsing into puddles of their own piss and vomit.

Sofia took inventory of what remained of her father’s work, but soon heard a footsteps approaching her from behind. “A bun’s a silver,” Sofia said, turning to get one of the last pastries from its rack. When she turned back around to face the customer, the bun slipped from her hand. Even shrouded under her shawl, it was hard Nekayah to be mistaken for anyone else, especially by Sofia.

“I thought you’d left,” Sofia said. Her voice was quiet and reserved. Her happiness was matched only by her aching discomfort from seeing her again.

“I figured I would see what all this was about,” Nekayah said, looking back at the people dancing, laughing, and tossing back tankards of amber cervesa.

The two women locked eyes for a moment. Sofia then realized Nekayah’s bun was on the ground. “Oh right, your bun. Sorry. That’s the second time that’s happened today…”

Sofia turned around to pluck a new bun from the rack. But when Sofia turned back to face Nekayah, she found the Abyssinian standing behind the counter, right in front of her. Sofia squeaked with surprise, dropping the bun again.

Nekayah bent low and caught the bun in her hand. “You’re going to run out if this keeps up.”

Sofia pouted. “It’s your fault.”

Nekayah took Sofia’s hands and gripped them gently. “Do I still scare you?”

Sofia shook her head. “We both know this can’t work. It’s not right. It was just—I don’t know what it was.”

Nekayah smirked. “I’m not here for your affection.”

Sofia eyed her curiously. “Then what are you here for?”

“I’m just here for the bun.” She bit into it, chewed, and swallowed. “And maybe a quick dance. It would be a shame to miss the opportunity.”

Together, they listened to the strumming rhythm of the guitar and clacking of the castanets. Nekayah started to shift her body to the beat of the song, swaying with its harmonic current. Sofia followed Nekayah’s steps and before long they were dancing in circles under the canopy of the sweet bun stall.

They fell into each other’s gaze, speaking not with words but with the swaying of their bodies. Nekayah led them out from under the stall and far away from the crowd, away from the well-lit square, and into the shadowy streets. The world around them dissolved into a black, blues and faint, distant orange smeared together like pain on a canvas. They were alone now, just the two of them.

“I didn’t know you knew how to dance,” Sofia said.

“There are a lot of things you don’t know about me.”

Sofia put her head on Nekayah’s shoulder. “I’m sorry for what I did.”

Nekayah shook her head. “Sssshhh. Let’s just try to enjoy the moment.”

Sofia whispered softly. “Thank you for coming back, even just for a moment.” Her anxieties faded from her thoughts, melting away from the heat that glowed between them. Whatever would happen, would happen, but for now this night belonged just to the two of them. They danced for what felt like ages, swirling around each other like twin stars locked in an eternal orbit.

The few men who were still sober began moving through the crowd carrying bails of dry yellow hay, setting them around the flower pole in front of the cathedral. Their steely-eyed resolve amidst the platitudes of intoxicated faces brought Nekayah back to reality.

“What’s going on?” Nekayah asked, watching the men at work.

“At midnight we hold the ceremonial burning.” Sofia could see the confusion on Nekayah’s face. “In years past we would burn a witch, but recently, we only burned a straw-woman. This year, however, it’s different.”

“Different how?”

“The Inquisition granted us a great honor. They will host their execution of a witch right here in our town.”

A mule-drawn cart made its way through the crowd and in the back was a homely woman, hands and ankles tied with matted hair obscuring her face. Nekayah stared at the woman go by as Sofia continued. “We requested her to be burned at our festival once she was found guilty. We never thought they’d say yes.”

“Guilty…?” Nekayah echoed.

The two women watched the accused get tied to the flower pole, at which moment Nekayah realized it for what it really was, a stake. The crowd began to move in unison, anticipating what was going to happen, and gathered around the stake. Three hooded figures clad in scarlet robes stepped forward. Where they came from was anyone’s guess as most of the villagers stepped back in surprise upon seeing them. They stood silently, faces obscured in black shadow, watching the woman squirm and scream on the pole.

The musicians had ceased their playing. Her screams did not mix well with music. A thick buzz of questions and murmurs replaced the happy tunes. People turned to one another expectantly, each having an opinion they wanted to whisper to their neighbor.

Sofia stroked Nekayah’s arm. “Are you alright? Are you sweating?”

The Abyssinian’s jaw was clenched and her forehead looked glossier than usual. “I don’t think I want to watch this.”

“We must. She is an example to all of us of what happens when we stray from the path.”

The hay was stacked in piles up to the woman’s chest. Bails of twigs were mixed in as well for good measure. One of the scarlet men came forward with a torch.

“Fiona Gordela,” cried the hooded man, his words coming out of the black void under his hood, “you have been found guilty of witchcraft and heresy. Do you have any last words?”

“No!” the woman shrieked. “I didn’t do anything! I’m innocent! I swear to God!”

The crowd around her hissed and jeered. Sofia joined in, spitting a vile insult that got lost in all the noise. She was so caught up in the excitement that she did not notice Nekayah staring at her with wide, apprehensive eyes.

The robed man continued, unswayed by her plea. “By the power invested in me by the Holy Inquisition of Spain, I sentence you to burn at the stake. May the flames cleanse you! And may God have mercy on your eternal soul!” With that, he tossed the torch onto the hay pile. It erupted in flame instantly. Within mere moments the woman was engulfed in fire, screaming until her throat baked and charred to ash.

“I do not want to see this!” Nekayah turned away.

“Don’t look away!” Sofia grabbed Nekayah, trying to turn her back around. “We must not show her any sympathy.”

“This is what you people do to celebrate?” Nekayah grabbed Sofia’s hands and pried them off her. “This is madness.”

Sofia was unsure how to respond. Nekayah was cringing like a panic-stricken deer, shrinking away from the light of the fire. Most of the other villagers were still transfixed by massive inferno, but some closest by were starting to take notice of the erratic foreigner.

“Nekayah?” Sofia whispered.

The Abyssinian stilled her shivering body and looked towards the fire, but in doing so, she closed her eyes. Sofia noticed, but did not know what else to say.

“You…!” cried a familiar voice from the crowd.

The two women looked to see Aunt Vanessa shuffling towards them. Her eyes were alight with the sinister ire. A disturbing grin stretched across her wrinkled face showing her many missing teeth. One hand was bent behind her back and she pointed sharply with the other. “I was hoping you’d come back today, witch! You should be the one on that pyre!”

“Aunty, stay away!” Sofia tried to put herself between them again just as the crone revealed a bread knife from behind her back.

“Sofia!” Nekayah pulled the girl behind her.

“I saw what you did, witch!” Every time she said that word, more and more eyes turned to look at them. “You used your black arts on my niece. I saw! Her mind is perverted now from your wickedness!”

“Aunty, have you gone mad?”

“Look at your left breast, child. Look at the scar she etched into it. Did you not see it? A devil’s marking.”

Sofia looked down at her chest. In truth, she hadn’t noticed the little scar until now, but it’s odd shape did make her question. “Nekayah, what is this? Did you do this to me?”

“You were dying,” Nekayah said. “I had to do something to cure you. The medicine wasn’t working.”

“So it really was witchcraft?”

“No! No, it’s not! Don’t listen to her! I just had to cut you a little.”

Aunt Vanessa shrieked and came at Nekayah like a banshee. Sofia watched her aunt bury the bread knife in Nekayah’s shoulder, near the base of Abyssinian’s neck. Onlookers in their vicinity had forgotten all about the bonfire and turned their focus to the attempted murder taking place right before them. Nekayah shoved the old woman to the ground and wrenched the knife out of her body, groaning in pain through her clenched teeth. Blood flowed hard and fast. Time was short. She could already feel her vision fading.

Nekayah threw the knife on the ground, then smeared her finger in the blood her own wound. Panting, she scrawled an illegible symbol on her palm as fast as anyone could blink, then pounced on the old woman. A desperate, predatory glint flashed across her eyes as she grabbed the woman’s forehead.

“Nekayah!” Sofia screamed. More people nearby turned and stared at the dark woman pinning the old crone to the ground.

“Why?” Nekayah said, yelling at the old crone. “You could have let us be! Why must everything fall apart?”

The old woman writhed underneath Nekayah’s grip, hissing in pain.

Sofia stiffened, too terrified to move, as was everyone else around them. No one could make sense of what exactly was happening, but something primal inside her urged her to run away. The crone’s leathery skin was tightening around her limbs like a deflating wine sack. Her veins and sinew pressed into view underneath with visceral detail. It took all of Sofia’s effort just to stand her ground and shout. “Nekayah, stop!”

Nekayah ignored the frightened girl’s words. She wasn’t going to let herself die at the hands of this woman. The veins in her own arm bulged and pulsated as though they were drinking from the hag’s wellspring of life. The open flesh in Nekayah’s shoulder began to close, fusing itself whole again as threads of skin and meat pulled themselves together until there was nothing left but a gash in the collar of her dress surrounded by a bloody stain.

When the wound was healed, Nekayah stood up, panting over the husk of a woman that remained underneath her. Some life still festered in the crone’s old body, though. Her eyes twitched insistently and she wheezed thin sips of air, proving she wasn’t quite dead as she appeared. But she would never be herself again.

Nekayah blinked and looked around. The burning woman on the pyre was a distant notion. Every pair of eyes in the crowd was now focused on her.

“What have you done?” Sofia whispered. Her eyes were overflowing with tears. She looked at her aunt, gaunt and pale. “Lord!”

“She stabbed me, Sofia.” Nekayah reached out to her, but the maiden stepped back, trembling. Nekayah’s face waxed with disbelief. “You saw her do it!” She gestured to the crowd surrounding her. “You all saw it!”

The crowd murmured amongst itself.

Sofia’s eyes turned glossy from the tears welling up inside. “You stole her spirit!”

“No…” Nekayah lied, shaking her head. “She tried to kill me.”

“Monster!” Sofia wailed that word at the top of her lungs. “I saw you!”

“She tried to kill me! Did you not see that?” Nekayah looked to the crowd, desperate for one sane witness to speak on her behalf. “She stabbed me in the neck!” The crowd, however, gave her no show of sympathy.

The scarlet cloaked men pushed their way through to the forefront of the scene. “Explain this!” one of them barked.

“She attacked her,” one man cried. “That blackamoor attacked her!”

“Heathen!” another voice declared.

“Sofia,” Nekayah said, pleading. “Tell them what happened! I had to save myself! Please...tell them the truth.”

“It all makes sense now…” Sofia whispered, looking at the scar on her chest. “Why I had all these feelings, why I couldn’t get you out of my head. You put a charm on me. You’re a…”

Sofia saw the woman’s face twist in despair and bitter anger. “No! Don’t you dare say it!”

Sofia pointed her trembling finger at the Abyssinian. “She’s a witch!”

As if by that revelation all fear and stupefaction had been lifted from the crowd and was replaced by a seething torrent of hot and violent hate. Witch! Witch! The word echoed across the throngs of men and women.

“Put her on the pyre!” a woman cried. “Burn the witch!”

“Bury in the burning coals!” a bearded man cried.

Nekayah reached for Sofia, but she shook her head and backed away. It wasn’t hate that stole her, or so Sofia told herself. It was just what she had to do—it was for the best. She could see the hopeless abandonment on the Abyssinian’s face. Eyes that begged for help and lips that trembled to find the right words, but Sofia could not help her. She was a beautiful but wicked creature, and she was almost tricked into falling in love with her. That was what she told herself. It was only way it could make sense. Now, all she could do was turn and run, disappearing into the crowd sobbing, unable to look back at the woman who had saved her life.

The Fox and the Fire

A stone came from somewhere in the crowd, striking Nekayah across the brow. She flinched, rubbing the spot where she’d been hit, feeling her blood starting to ooze from the cut. The mob surrounding her was closing in and no matter which way she turned, she met a mass of angry faces shouting at her, raising their fists. Burn the witch! The scarlet-robed men were the only ones remaining calm, but they led the mob, slowly stepping forward towards Nekayah.

The Abyssinian’s mind raced and her heart beat wildly under her ribs. Witch! Witch! Witch! She was out of time and needed a plan. There were spells, yes, powerful spells that she could use. But they were terrible spells, spells that would destroy them so utterly, it would only prove their point.

It was her or them. It was life or a painful, burning death. She looked down at the old woman, flailing about like a senseless babe on the ground. She’d spared her life when she could have easily killed her, but no one seemed to appreciate that now. Whatever blood remained in her dried out husk would have to be sufficient, she hoped.

Nekayah reached her dagger inside the folds of her sash. So be it. Her fingers were ready. It would take but a second to scrawl the spell. All she needed was the ink. The old woman had to die. It was time to unleash her devastation.

“Halt, good fellows! Halt I say!”

The voice broke across the torrent of angry chanting. Everybody gradually fell silent with looks of confusion as a curious stranger stepped forward into the clearing. He wore a burgundy shoulder cape that fluttered with every strut, and a bronze mask covered his eyes. It was the juggler from yesterday, but now on his belt hung a fine rapier; its hilt was an intricate design of spiraling gold.

“I say, have we all lost our minds?” he said, gesturing towards everyone. “To lay a hand on this woman would spell doom for you all!”

Nekayah eyed the man intensely, as did everyone else. His clothes were strange, but when he turned to look at her, something about his smile bore an uncanny resemblance to someone she couldn’t quite remember.

“But she’s a witch!” someone said.

“Aye, she is!” The stranger pointed towards the voice in the crowd. “But she’s no ordinary witch! You might not have heard, living in this quiet village, but this woman is none other than the infamous Witch of Castile, slayer of nobles, bringer of demons! We should beg for her mercy while we still can!”

Some people in crowd exchanged nervous looks. Their single-minded hostility was shifting. Nekayah could feel it.

“Who are you?” a woman asked.

“Indeed,” Nekayah whispered. “Who are you, and what are you doing?”

The young man flashed that familiar uncanny smile, much to Nekayah’s befuddlement. What sort of arrogance would compel a man to stand up to such a mob and grin at the overwhelming odds of death. If Sofia could not stand against it, what stranger would?

“Who am I?” He paused for a laugh that bordered on maniacal. “I am the one and only, the prowler in the dark, the sword in the night, the conqueror of maidens!” He unsheathed his sword with gusto and pointed to the night sky. “I am the Fox of Toledo!”

“I’m sorry, who?” Nekayah asked.

The stranger lowered his sword and shrugged. “The Fox of Toledo.”

Nekayah shook her head, confused.

The masked man sighed. “Listen, just know I’m here to help. Alright?”

“Alright…” Nekayah glanced at the leering faces. Some were taken aback by the Fox’s presence. Others were not so impressed, scowling all the same. The faceless men in their scarlet robes looked at the crowd, then back at the two of them. The momentum of the throng had been disturbed, but only temporary.

“Anyone who defends a witch will burn with them!” one of the Inquisitors said, finally. It was enough to redirect the mob’s energy, reigniting their simmering anger. Roaring erupted anew, fists were raised in the air and they began to close in.

Nekayah and the Fox pressed back to back to face the oncoming swarm. Nekayah had her dagger drawn, ready to bleed the old woman, but she wondered if she even had time to draw out a spell. “So, Fox...what’s your plan?”

“Wait for it…” The Fox pointed his blade at the crowd, warning them to stay back, squeezing what few precious seconds he could out of the situation. None of the villagers were armed with any real weapons, a staff or a knife at best, and no one seemed too willing to be the first to take the rogue head on. “Wait for it!”

Nekayah grumbled a curse. “Fool, we have no time to wait!” She knelt down over the husk of a woman by her feet and brought her ivory dagger to her throat. “Normally I would say I’m sorry for this…”

“Fire!” The a cry came from the rear of the crowd, shrill with surprise and terror.

The rest of the mob gradually turned to see what was the matter. A burning column of flame had sprung up among the houses beyond the square. It’s smoke began to waft over the villagers, blending with that of the execution pyre, which was now a smoldering lump of dying flames atop a pile of ash and charred bones.

“It’s spreading!” someone cried.

“Quick!” an old man barked. “Get water!”

The crowd started to break and people scattered. The fire was spreading to the shops and houses along the edge of the square. Livelihoods and loved ones were in the path of wayward flames, putting the foreign witch furthest from the villagers’ priorities.

“There,” the Fox said, smiling under his bronze mask. “A little distraction was all we needed. Come now, we haven’t got all night.”

“Not so fast, blasphemer.” The inquisitors stood their ground, and with the crowd dispersing, their armed guards came quick to back them up. “You will not escape judgment so easily.”

“Ha, I beg to differ!” The Fox threw down a small ball that exploded in a cloud of smoke upon hitting the ground.

The Fox took Nekayah by the hand and they escaped into the night. Nekayah felt like she was being dragged, doing her best to keep up while lugging her satchel. If they could make it past the square then they’d find some sort of sanctuary in the obscuring darkness.

“Slow down!” Nekayah said, panting.

A villager was bearing down on her, a burly man stomping towards her. “You won’t escape, witch!”

He seized Nekayah by the scruff her dress. Nekayah was yanked back, feeling her head whip forward, almost causing her to stumble onto her back.

The burly man’s hand grabbed at her, trying to subdue her by taking her wrists, but the Fox came to her aid. He threw a hard punch that slammed into his nose, making a loud crunch. The man stumbled back, holding his bleeding face, gurgling.

The Fox took Nekayah by the hand again and pulled her along. More villagers and guardsmen chased after them. The fire and chaos had robbed them of their more civil nature. Every time one got too close, the Fox fought them off. Fear and anger dominated the village now. Where was Sofia amidst all this, Nekayah wondered.

No. Sofia had abandoned her. She was gone forever and Nekayah had no time to waste thinking of her. Stay focused. Damn the whole village. Let them all burn.

Together, Nekayah and the Fox disappeared into the unlit stretches of the village near its outskirts, but they were still unsafe. Several men still pursued them, young and able to keep pace, they gained ground as the two escapees started to feel their legs fatigue.

The Fox guided Nekayah behind a cluster of barrels where they crouched low to hide from bloodthirsty eyes. In the darkness, though, the hunters stumbled awkwardly, tripping over cobblestones and jumping at cats hissing in the shadows. They called out, but their voices twinged with shaky uncertainty.

The Fox readied his rapier. Nekayah saw its perfect edge glint in the starlight. His intention was clear, and she was ready to let him do it. They were simple villagers, sitting ducks against a man who knew how to fight. They were fools to break so far away from the rest of the mob. It just wouldn’t be fair. Nekayah put her hand on the Fox’s sword and tilted it down, shaking her head gently. The Fox looked at her, and even though it was hard to read his expression under the mask, he eventually nodded.

The men wandered further away, calling in vain for the witch, unaware of the mercy she had granted them.

When their way was clear they emerged from behind the barrels and silently dashed through the empty village streets. As they walked, the bedlam of the fire and chaos became distant whispering screams, faint against the night sky. The flames dyed the night sky above the village orange so bright it washed out the stars.

At the edge of the village, when nothing but farmland, fields of amber wheat and green onion sprouts extended before them, the two took a moment to catch their breath. Above them the moon was shining white. Nekayah hadn’t even noticed it until now.

“Who are you?” Nekayah asked, sharing a waterskin with him. Their mouths and throats had gone dry from all their heavy panting.

“I am the Fox of—”

“That’s not what I mean!” Nekayah’s voice was a forceful whisper. “If I’m to take one more step with you, I need to know who you really are. There’s something about you…something familiar.”

The Fox chuckled. “It hasn’t been that long, has it?” He took off his mask and revealed the handsome dusky face of Diego Aldora.

“You…?”

Diego flashed a charming smile. “Surprised?”

Nekayah shoved Diego in the chest so hard she heard air puff out of his lung. “How big of a fool are you? You should be home! What are you doing out here?”

“I came to help you!” Diego wheezed, sucking air back into his chest. “It looked like you needed it back there!”

Nekayah lowered her head and glared into the dirt. It wasn’t entirely untrue. His assistance spared her and the village from a worse fate than fire, as terrible as that was. “Thank you…” she grumbled. “But now you must return home.”

The young man fell silent. Nekayah could sense something was wrong. Diego’s stare filled with heavy woe and his brow pinched trying to bring himself to say the words.

Nekayah understood that look. “You can’t go back, can you?”

Diego sighed. “No…”

“Diego, what did you do?”

“Me and my family were never on the best of terms.” He patted the sword on his hilt. “After you left, I forged one last sword to replace my masterpiece, and then I fled, following your trail.”

“And in your arrogance you assumed I would accept you?” The crows cawed across the night sky. Nekayah looked at the man—the boy—she couldn’t decide which. Diego turned away from her, running his fingers through his dark curls. Without his mask it was easy to see the weight of his decision suddenly pushing down on him. He hadn’t quite thought this all the way through.

“Maybe I was stupid to think you would want my help, but I knew for a fact I could not live on more day back there. But alas, I am nothing if not a gentleman.” Diego put the bronze mask back over his eyes. His smile returned with his roguish persona. “If m’lady has no need of me, I will not burden her.”

“Wait,” Nekayah said. She’d known Sofia for about two weeks, not a long a time, but they’d spent almost every hour of that week together only to have that time mean nothing in Nekayah’s hour of need. But this young man, annoying and cocksure as he was, came across the country to aid her. It was dumb, to be sure, but how many people had Nekayah helped only to be hurt even worse. What she hated more than stupid boys were ingrates, and she’d been dealing with them all her life. She would die before she let herself become one of them. “If it pleases you, you may travel with me. But I warn you now and only once, try something funny and I’ll geld you.”

Diego laughed. “A gentleman would never, not without m’lady’s permission that is.”

Nekayah flashed her dagger. “Quit that charm right now, you hear me?”

“That might be impossible.” He shrugged with a smile. “M’lady might have to geld me here and now.”

Nekayah cursed under her breath and shook her head. Impudent boy! She put away her blade and stepped towards the wheat field, but then paused. “There’s one more thing. If you travel with me you will see things—things that will change you...things that might break how you see the world. If I tell you to run, to abandon hope and flee from horrors so dark lest they consume your mind, you must obey. Understood?”

Diego’s smile vanished and a curious air of sincerity formed about him. “I understand.”

Nekayah was happy to see there were hints of man inside him after all. It gave her a morsel of solace, but her words were easier to say than they were to keep, and she prayed for his sake that he’d keep his word if the time came. “Come on, let’s go.”

The two ventured into the midnight countryside, pushing through the sea of wheat as the pale moon above watched them, just two tiny specs on the earth, making their way into the unknown.

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