No one spoke for the first half-hour of the hike to the village. The rotnaks had insisted they press on into the night, claiming their home wasn’t too far away. Catherine and the soldier had fallen about ten yards behind, the incline slowing them down a bit more than their guides.
“So…” Said the soldier in a low voice, “You’re a friend of the rotnaks. Why on earth would you ever help a group of creatures like… them?”
Catherine glared at him, “Are you gonna criticize me about my life choices again? Because I’ve just about had it with you treating me like dirt. What did I ever do to you?”
“You didn’t do anything.” Said the soldier, “It’s the magic that’s bad.”
“It’s about to save your village! I don’t see the problem.”
“It just feels… wrong somehow. It rubs me the wrong way, that’s all.”
“Look, you wanna know why I help the rotnaks? Let me explain a little something to you. When I became an enchantress, I took an oath to use my power to keep peace and order wherever I go. It’s my job to help those in need, regardless of what they believe, or who they fight for or against, as long as doing so won’t cause even more harm in the long run.”
“But the rotnaks have killed our people in the past! If you save them, you’re letting them do more harm!”
“Haven’t the people from your village killed some of them too?”
“We were at war! We had no choice!”
“I have it on good authority that they felt the same.”
“My master had a hand in the making of the peace treaty that keeps the humans and the rotnaks from killing each other. He acted as a neutral third party to keep things fair.”
“Okay, fine. But what about the mages and enchanters who use their power to hurt others?”
“We do not consider them ‘enchanters.’ They are true witches and warlocks, who took their power too far, corrupting their minds and driving them mad.”
The soldier didn’t respond, and for the next few minutes they walked in silence.
“Enchantress!” The lead rotnak called from up ahead, “We have almost arrived.” The group stopped and waited for the humans to catch up.
“Erm, before we get there,” the rotnak said, “we’d just like to apologize for the, uh... incident earlier. We would never attack someone as esteemed as yourself knowingly.”
“You are forgiven.” Catherine said, “And I’m so sorry for my outburst. I was having a very rough day even before we encountered you and I lost my composure. I see no reason to mention this to the chieftess, so let’s just forget this whole thing ever happened, alright?”
“You’re not angry?” The leader said
“Not anymore. By the way, what are your names? I don’t think you mentioned it.
“They call me Virrac. This here is Tenwek and Droad.”
“And while we’re at it,” Catherine said, “I don’t think I ever got your name either.” She turned to the soldier.
He looked at her for a second, then turned away. “Doesn’t matter,” he muttered, “Let’s just keep moving. It’s already getting too dark to see.”
“We’ve got to call you something.” Droad said.
“You really think it’s a good idea to give your name to a… someone like her? That’s all it’d take for her to worm her way into your minds and mess with them, until you go mad.”
“Don’t worry about it guys,” Catherine said, “he hasn’t trusted me from the moment we met, thought I couldn’t tell you why. Let him think what he wants, I’m done trying to change his mind.” She turned away and continued walking.
“Hey, Catherine?” Droad said, catching up with her, “You… can’t really do that can you? And if you can… you wouldn’t do it to us, right?”
“This is Catherine Silver, for crying out loud,” Tenwek said, “She’s a hero! Heros don’t go around breaking other people's brains just for fun.”
“I can’t do that anyways,” Catherine said “That falls squarely under black magic, and I don’t touch that.”
“You mean there’s some magic that’s evil?” Tenwek asked, “I had no idea.”
“Hey look we’re here!” Virrac called from just ahead.
The ground quickly grew flat, and the group of travelers saw before them the lights of the village of the Rotnaks shining in the night. Some houses were built on flat ground, others into the side of a nearby cliff a ways away. All were carved from stone, eating into the mountain itself, and accented with wooden window frames and doorways.
As the group walked through the village, a few of the residents poked their heads out of their homes to stare at Catherine as she passed. Many knew her by her trademark orange robe, and those who didn’t quickly learned from those who did.
They soon reached the center of the village, where the largest building of all stood, more ornate than anything else nearby, and surrounded by a great steel fence with two of the toughest rotnak guards either of the humans had ever seen standing on either side of it’s gate. At this point a small crowd had formed, watching the enchantress from a distance, whispering amongst themselves, and wondering what had brought her to their village once again.
“Excuse me,” Catherine said, approaching the guards, “My name is Catherine Silver, and I’d wish to speak with Chieftess Lenrai, if that’s alright.”
“We know who you are, enchantress,” The guard on the left said, “But she isn’t taking visitors at the moment.”
“It’s rather urgent, actually.” Catherine said, “You see, my friend here had a mother frost tulip make a nest in his village. You rotnaks know the entire mountain, and we believe it came from somewhere near your village. We were hoping she would be willing to help us in our cause.”
The rotnak guards tensed for a moment. The one on the left glanced at the one on the right, but only for a second.
“Something similar happened here, in this village.” Said the guard to the right, “But it was fixed by-”
“Our great chieftess.” interrupted the one on the left, giving the other a strange look.
“Ah… yes.” Said the right one, “That’s… what I was about to say. Anyways, the plight of the humans at the base of the mountain are no concern of ours. We have no allegiance with them. The chieftess will not see you, as she cannot take any visitors for the next few weeks after the… incident with the frost tulips in our own village.”
“You’re just gonna lock us out then?” The soldier said, “Innocent people are in danger because of this, and your chieftess has the nerve to sit around in her palace and ignore it? If you don’t open this gate up right this second, I’ll chop the both of you to pieces and bash it down myself, you hear?”
Before anyone could so much as blink, the rotnak guards had their spears pointed straight at the soldier’s throat.
“You’d best learn when to keep your mouth shut, human.” The guard on the left snarled, “If your friend here wasn’t an enchantress, we’d’ve put a spear through you the moment you walked into the village.”
The soldier leapt backwards, raising his battleaxe. “Is that a challenge?”
“Stop it!” Catherine shouted, “you’ll get yourself killed.”
“I don’t take orders from you, witch.” The soldier rushed at the rotnak on the left, swinging wildly. The creature jumped out of the way as his companion lunged, nearly impaling the soldier. Catherine watched as the fight escalated, palms sweating, heart pounding. She tried to think of some way to stop them before someone got hurt, or worse, but her mind had gone blank.
Then, it was over. One of the rotnaks slammed his fist into the soldier’s stomach, sending him sprawling onto the cobblestone pavement. His axe clattered to the ground a few yards away.
“By the authority of chieftess Lenrai, I place you under arrest,” said one of the guards, holding the soldier at spearpoint, “Come sunrise, she will decide your fate.”
“Wait!” Catherine said, “I need him!”
“What does an enchantress want with a common soldier?”
“He’s…” Catherine faltered, “my, uh… apprentice.”
“Not even someone as esteemed as yourself is above the law, enchantress. You best hope the chieftess is feeling merciful.”
A flash of inspiration struck Catherine. Why hadn’t she thought of it before? There was still one way to get an audience with the Chieftess.
“If you don’t give him back to me,” She said slowly, “I’ll take him back myself.” To punctuate this, she held up her right hand and set it ablaze.
“Uh, Catherine?” Virrac said, “What are you doing?”
“Getting my friend back.”
“Stand down, enchantress,” One of the guards said, “Or we’ll have to use force.”
“Same here.” With that, she hurled a fireball just over his right shoulder, getting just close enough to singe the tips of his fur. Catherine couldn’t help the smile that formed on her lips. Perfect shot.
No one said a word. Even the crowd stopped it’s whispering. Then, the guard that wasn’t busy binding the soldier's hands lunged at Catherine, stopping his spear just inches from her throat. Slowly, she put her hands in the air.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I don’t know what came over me.”
“Guess you’re not the hero everyone says you are.” The guard said, “I’ll have to arrest you.”
“Oops…” Catherine said, as the rotnak bound her hands, “I think I went a little too far with that one.
“You’d sure did,” the guard grabbed her firmly by the shoulder and lead her away, “Now move it. It’s a few miles to the jail, and I haven’t got all night.”
As the guards pushed them along, Catherine gave the soldier a sidelong glance. He was staring at her, eyes round. She gave a little smile, and winked.
To be continued...