Witchcraft and Warnings
"Orders of Chamberlain Unthank," said one of the men in rusted chainmail in a gruff voice. "We're Doom Troopers. We're here to take your harvest."
Shane felt his indignation flare. That would leave them with nothing for the winter. "You will do no such thing!"
"Yeah, not cool," drawled Chad.
"Shuttit you," said the other Doom Trooper, waving the short spear at him threateningly. "I'll stick yer with this frog sticker."
"So will I," growled the other Trooper, pointing his spear at Shane's throat.
Ash's pale eyebrows drew together as she glared at the Doom Troopers. She picked up a scythe. "Noggerhead! 'Ee dare threaten my boy?" She was breathing through her nose and her cheeks were flushing. Her dialect was always stronger when she was angry. Normally she tried to enunciate like Shane did.
"What're yer going to do with that, carrot top?" jeered the Trooper.
Ash pointed near his head, her mouth forming a perfect 'O' shape. "Oh! A glumbumble."
"Argh! Those bugs really sting," said the Trooper, giving a start and bumping into his fellow, causing him to drop his spear.
While he was distracted, Ash knocked his spear from his grasp with her scythe. "Can' believe you fell for it," she said scornfully. "Now get out, both of 'ee. Go on."
"It's 'umiliating," said the first Trooper. "Threatened by a girl."
"Noo. Bein' hurt by a girl would be humiliating," said Ash. "Go."
The Doom Trooper spat on the ground. "Unthank will send the Dread Knights after you fer this."
The Troopers left, but that last part made Shane uneasy.
There was a meeting of the farm hands in the cowshed soon after as the sun set.
"Ash has brought the wrath of Unthank down on us," said Cedric. "It'll be his order of Dread Knights next time, for sure."
"Leave her alone," said Shane, frowning at him. Ash's eyes were downcast and she was uncharacteristically silent. Elm was looking pale and troubled.
"Yeahh, what Shane said," drawled Chad.
As the meeting ended, Ash ran out, her hands covering her face. Shane pulled on Chad's arm. "C'mon." They went out to find Ash. She was by the stables, petting Thunder's nose.
"Ash!" called Shane, running up to her as Shane followed more slowly.
Ash turned and smiled at them, but Shane could see in the moonlight that tears shone in her blue eyes.
"Don't fret it, Ash," said Shane, patting her arm. "It wasn't your fault."
"I'm the Princess of Disaster," said Ash, her bottom lip trembling
"Princess?" said Shane. "Are you a milkmaid Princess?"
"Then I'm like a witch, bringin' a curse," said Ash, pulling a face and sticking out her pink tongue.
Suddenly, Shane glimpsed a pale light out of the corner of his eye and turned to see the shadowy outline of a tall woman advancing towards them. With a queasy sensation, remembered how he and Ash had seen a ghost on the moor the previous night.
"Ash!" He blurted, giving a start.
"What? What?" said Ash whirling round, her blue eyes wide with alarm. "Oh…" she gave a little gasp. She stood in front of Shane and curtseyed. "Dear Lady."
"Dudette, what d'ya mean?" said Chad.
"Lady Isolde!" said Ash, turning around and glaring.
Shane peered at the ghost. A lady with long, platinum blond hair, her mouth set in stern lines and her violet blue eyes shrewd and piercing. She was clad in leather armour with breast and shoulder plates and wielded an ethereal sword that gleamed with a pale light.
Ash took Shane and Chad by the hand and they followed her example in kneeling down before the ghost as she stared down at them.
"Rise, my children," she said motioning with her arm. They stood up.
"Woahh. Intense," muttered Chad.
Shane felt a cold sense of dread. What on Granat could this mean?
Ash gazed at the ghost, her face pale and her freckles really showing. "M – Milady, what … how did this happen? W-Was it on the crusade?"
"No, my girl," said Isolde, her voice clear and penetrating. "I survived the crusade against the forces of Death, only to be cut down when in sight of Winterhold. A band of ruffians accosted me on the moors and an evildoer of higher calibre was with them. An acolyte of Death. This acolyte struck me down with dark magic and my corpse now grows cold on the moors. Great evil is afoot in Winterhold."
Ash was staring at her with wide eyes, but then she smiled. "We know someone who can help," she said, "Shane an' I know a witch. She has these 'mazin' powers."
Uh Oh… Shane did not like this at all. Did Ash really suppose bringing that green skinned hag into their problems would solve anything?
"Hum. A witch's hovel does indeed lie at the heart or Wraith Wood," said Isolde. "All things considered, if anyone can help, a practitioner of dark magic can."
"We know 'er," said Ash excitedly. "Shane an' I do!"
"I know her too," said Chad. He touched his golden hair. "She gave me blond hair in a bottle. It'll catch on back west. She gave it to me for free, but I bet I could sell it."
So, Chad had visited that witch before?
"Psh! As if you needed a beauty tonic, boy," said Isolde. "But I would be grateful if you could speak on my behalf. Perhaps this witch is eager to oblige beautiful members of the opposite gender."
"Per'aps she is," said Ash, her cheeks flushing a fox-glove hue.
On the moor, the Moon rose overhead, shining brighter than it had the previous night. Shane could never remember it being like this. It seemed to glare directly at him, like it was a lidless eye. He shuddered and Ash slipped her little hand in his.
Isolde tried to get them to join in a Warrior Marching song, but there efforts were so lacklustre she soon gave up. Before long, they were enveloped within the bounds of Wraith Wood. The trees grew thick and dark around them, although Shane was still aware of the glowing orb of the Moon between the leafless branches above them. The branches looked like the clawing talons of skeletal hands.
"So, um… Lady," said Shane timidly. "You have known there is a witch in Wraith Wood for how long?"
Isolde looked at him sharply. "Hitherto, I have had no truck with witches. But she has not harmed anyone to my knowledge. Live and let live, I say."
"I agree," said Ash, nodding so that her red hair rippled and bounced.
And then, between the tangle of trees, the witch's cottage came into view. Shane could see the light of a roaring fire flickering behind the grimy windows of the tumbledown hovel, but there was also a dead magpie nailed to the door.
"Oh, gods. Don't think I can," said Shane, feeling unsteady at the knees.
"I'm here," Ash reminded him, squeezing his hand.
"Stay behind me," murmured Isolde, going on ahead, her boots seeming to skim over the dead leaves. She gave off a faint glow in the darkness.
The cottage door was suddenly flung open by the scrawny old witch Shane and Ash had seen the previous night. She really was ugly, her hooked chin that jutted out.
"Who's that?" she demanded in her reedy old voice. Then she gasped at the sight of Isolde. "Yer one of them, aintcha? Your master's sent you to do away with me at last, has he? We'll see about that."
"Hey, hey, chill," urged Chad, hurrying forward. "This dame isn't gonna hurt anyone. She's come for help."
"That is correct," said Isolde solemnly.
The witch's green face split into an uneven grin as she saw Chad, her long nose crinkling. "Dearie… What kind of company have yer brought me tonight, eh?"
She actually pinched his cheek.
"Don't embarrass the boy," said Isolde sternly, although Shane thought that Chad only reacted with his usual calm nonchalance, "I am the lady of Winterfell, and I have come seeking your aid."
The witch looked at Isolde with a grimace on her face. "You'd best come inside," she said, beckoning with a long, green finger. The four of them filed over the threshold. The scene inside the cottage was exactly as Shane might have imagined it. A cauldron bubbled over the fire in the hearth, while sprigs of herbs hung drying over rafters. On a table there was a book bound in black leather, while lying on a rag rug in front of the fire was a chubby piglet. Ash was glancing around, her blue eyes wide.
"Mistress Toadfoot at yer service, M'Lady," said the witch, "though I 'spect you already knew that."
Isolde inclined her head. "I did indeed." Then she hurriedly related her story to the witch.
Mistress Toadfoot scratched her long green nose. "There's certainly something afoot," she said. "There've been signs 'n portents. Bad dreams, they're always a good sign, and people 'ave been having a lot lately. A right plague of nightmares. There's disturbance in the spirit world and that means restless ghosts. Summat's coming. Summat really, really bad."
"Woahh…" said Chad, letting out a low whistle.
Isolde's slightly transparent face showed worry. Her brows drew together and her eyes were anxious. "Mistress, can you been of help in any way?"
"I could summon my familiar spirit to ask fer help," she said slowly, scratching her green chin.
"Let it be done, I implore you," said Isolde.
"Yeah, I like, second that," said Chad in his roundabout way.
"For you, my pretty," said Mistress Toadfoot, winking at Chad. She sat down on one side of the table. "You have to sit across the table," she told Chad, drumming her long fingernails on the wooden surface.
"Seriously? Weird," mumbled Chad, sitting himself opposite the witch.
Shane was aware of Ash shifting on her feet. He took a sidelong glance at her and noticed she was grimacing.
"He is clearly no mage," began Isolde.
"Nothing to do with magic. I haven't sat across the table from anyone really gorgeous in a long time," said the witch, leering. "Now pipe down, Isolde. Conjuring is my purview."
"It's alright," said Chad, unconcerned.
Shane thought he would have felt really uncomfortable himself if the witch leered at him like that. Maybe someone as good looking as Chad was used to this kind of thing though, who knew?
The witch's eyes rolled up as she called to her familiar spirit. "Pyewacket, come to mother."
The temperature in the hovel dropped and frost formed on the windows. Shane and Ash instinctively drew together. As they watched aghast, something manifested in the air above the table. It had the body of a monkey, but covered in the iridescent blue and green plumage of a parrot. It had the backward jointed legs of a cockerel and the face of a demon. It hovered in the air, sneering.
"Pyewacket, answer me this," commanded the witch, "who is responsible for the murder of Isolde."
The familiar spirit began to mewl and writhe as if in pain.
"Will you not answer me?" said Mistress Toadfoot.
"Another would prevent me," grunted the demon. "Beware… the Lord of Shadows comes…"
The familiar disappeared and the temperature in the hovel began to warm again.
"Hmmm. This is even worse than I thought," said Mistress Toadfoot.
"Who is the Lord of Shadows?" asked Isolde.
"A terrible warlord from long ago and a champion of the powers of darkness," said the witch. "He may rise again as one of the great undead. If some villain were to seek to bring him back… If the Lord of Shadows is coming, it would explain all the disturbance in the spirit world. Nothing is as it should be." The witch sighed. "My dears, I can't help yer." She shook her head.
"You cannot?" said Isolde, disappointed, gazing at the witch with sorrowful eyes.
"Don' bother givin' me that look, my girl," said Mistress Toadfoot.
Ash opened her mouth to speak, but Shane leaned forward across the table and put his hand on the witch's.
"It would be like, gnarly if you could help," he said.
Gnarly? Half the time, Shane couldn't make out what Chad was talking about.
"Oh, I can't refuse yer," said the witch, touching his cheek with her other hand.
Shane suppressed a grimace. He knew he wouldn't put up with the witch touching his face like that.
"There is a way," said Mistress Toadfoot. "I can't 'elp. My 'ands are tied an' I'm too old to fight. But another witch could."
"Other witch? There are others in the vicinity?" asked Isolde.
"No, no, Lady, listen," said Mistress Toadfoot shook her head. "Shekka's moon is overhead tonight. This is the night when the most gifted of the young 'uns could be reborn. The girl," she nodded her head at Ash who put both her hands to her chest, blinking.
The witch went on: "The Dark Goddess can transform a girl who's willin'."
"I could not allow that," began Isolde.
"You don' have a say in it," said Mistress Toadfoot sharply. "The girl has to decide."