by Axel Martens
The full moon crept slowly over the treetops, bathing the world in a pale pattern of light and shadow. Three figures crouched on the bluff overlooking the old mine road. Wrapped in long hooded cloaks, they huddled motionless, almost indistinguishable from the numerous outcrops of volcanic rock that dominated the landscape. Only their eyes gave them away, sparkling in the reflected moonlight – one pair of pale gray, one pair of amber, and one pair of piercing green eyes.
The sun had set hours ago, and the land quieted as night fell, soothed by the gentle rustling of the leaves. An owl hooted in the distance. Awaiting their quarry with outward patience, the three women watched the long stretch of winding road as it squeezed its way between the jagged cliffs and the dark forest marking the island’s eastern tip. Yet the calm was an illusion. Tension bristled like the surging charge in a thundercloud, yearning for the lightning bolt to strike.
“I am cold!” Renya’s hiss again broke the silence. All evening, her complaints had marked the passage of time with predictable frequency. Turning her head, she glared at the figure to her left. “How much longer do we have to wait?”
Mae took a deep breath. It wouldn’t do to snap back at Renya; it never did. Still, she struggled to ignore Renya’s constant whining, especially tonight. Mae’s energy was running low, making her more irritable than usual. Thankfully, Sigri stepped in this time.
“The plan hasn’t changed since last you asked. We’ll wait until he arrives.”
“We might be frozen to death by then.” Renya’s head snapped to the right, sending her flaming-red hair flying.
“Perhaps,” Sigri replied, her face serene, displaying neither anger nor mockery. “So I should have said: Until he arrives, or we have died from exposure, whatever happens first.”
Mae could have kissed Sigri. Her dry and even tone was the perfect response to Renya’s mercurial temper. But then, Sigri was Renya’s older sister and had dealt with her moods all her life. Truth be told, Mae felt cold as well. A capricious breeze stirred the night air, which still had a bite despite Midsummer not being far off. But Spring came late this year, adding to the general feeling of misery that grabbed the land.
“But is he coming at all?”
“Yes, Renya,” Mae sighed. “The duke dined with the mayor of Thorshofn, but he never stays overnight.”
Duke Erik Gunner Finsgúr, the lord of the southern province with its lush wheat fields, lumber mills, copper mines, and a handful of fishing villages and scattered hamlets, was well known for his fondness of lavish and extensive evening entertainment. As its largest and most populated settlement, the port town of Thorshofn provided the duke with income and amusement in equal measure. From there, he would return tonight to his secluded and impregnable estate, traveling along the lonely road that the three women spied upon.
“Forgive me for asking.” Renya turned to Mae, huffing as she blew a curly strand of hair from her face. “This wouldn’t be the first time one of your brilliant plans fails.”
“But not tonight,” Mae snarled, her teeth gritted. The injustice stung. Her plans failed? Of course, none of Renya’s plans ever went wrong – Renya never made any, and neither did Sigri. All the responsibility lay with Mae. Yet did she receive a word of appreciation?
Another deep breath later, Mae stated, “he will come, and we will get him.”
“Why? Because we are doing the right thing?” Renya scoffed. “I don’t get your obsession with the duke. There are much easier targets; greater rewards for less effort.”
“I don’t understand why you are complaining.” Mae’s green eyes flashed with anger. “After all, Sigri and I did all the scouting.”
Renya started to argue further, but Sigri raised her hand. The faint jingling of horses’ tack reached their ears, accompanied by the rattle of coach wheels on the dirt-packed road. Mae got up and crept along the cliff’s edge toward a ravine where rugged basalt columns formed a natural staircase leading to the road. Reaching the bottom, Mae hid behind a rock where she could see without being seen, ensuring her hood covered her short, silver-blond hair. Mae had devised the plan after weeks and weeks of preparation. With Sigri’s help, she studied the habits and movements of the target and scouted locations. Tonight, all three women would reap the reward for Mae’s efforts.
The noises from the approaching travelers grew louder. Sigri and Renya got in position, loosened their shoulders, and flexed their fingers. Mae’s plan was simple. As soon as the duke’s party had passed, Renya would block the road behind with a small rockslide. Mae would spook the horses with a bright light and use the distraction to raise a chain, crossing the road in front. Hemmed in between the dense forest and the sheer cliffs, a retreat was impossible. The frightened animals would rush forward, trip over the chain, throw their riders off, and crash the carriage. A hail of well-aimed rocks would incapacitate anybody still able to run. And then, the three witches would swoop in to collect their prize.
Simple plans work. And while the consequences for Duke Finsgúr and his entourage wouldn’t be pleasant, to say the least, Mae had picked the target deliberately. Even among aristocrats, Duke Finsgúr stood out as a deplorable human being. Not satisfied with squeezing every last Krona out of his impoverished peasants, the duke exulted in handing out harsh punishments for minimal or often no reason. Moreover, any young woman feared catching the duke’s lustful eye. If someone needed killing, Lord Finsgúr topped the list. And a killing there must be. Too long have Mae, Renya, and Sigri gone without the rejuvenating life force that their magic or existence required.
Mae’s nerves stretched to a breaking point with anticipation, and Renya’s persistent nagging did not help. Wiping her sweaty hands on her trousers, Mae concentrated on her tasks, and her breathing quieted. She reached out to her surroundings, absorbing all the minute details – the gravelly road, the fickle breeze, the rustling trees, and the hidden chain. The moon had risen higher, its cold light illuminating the entire road. Yet deep shadows transformed the forest into a solid wall of darkness – uniform and impenetrable. Still, Mae could hear and feel the life and movement within as her mind’s focus sharpened. The forest was never fully asleep.
Seconds had ticked by in agonizing sluggishness when the groan of tortured wood drew Mae’s attention. A mighty tree not far down the road started to tilt, and it toppled over with loud grinding and snapping. There it lay, ten paces shy of the prepared ambush, creating a formidable barrier that blocked Mae’s well-laid plans in the truest meaning of the word.
* * *
Mae stared dumbfounded as three figures on horseback exited the thickets opposite the witch’s hiding place. Two hulking riders on either side were holding torches, the one in the middle a loaded crossbow. The intruders placed themselves in the middle of the road, facing the fallen tree and the approaching carriage of Duke Finsgúr. Highwaymen, here? What are the odds? By all the Norns’ wicked sense of humor, how could two groups attack the same target on the same night?
Mae didn’t have long to ponder the unfortunate development as Duke Finsgúr’s entourage closed the distance to the makeshift barrier but stopped shy of the fallen tree. Four men-at-arms on horseback surrounded the carriage, which carried two more armed soldiers and the driver, besides Lord Finsgúr, presumably. Moonlight glimmered on breastplates, helmets, bridles, and plenty of weapons. Whatever the highwaymen had planned, it didn’t seem well thought out. The duke’s men outnumbered the bandits two to one, and only one crossbow couldn’t hold six guards in check. Dismissing the apparent disadvantage, the three robbers stood their ground as the central highwayman raised his voice.
“Hold! Surrender your wealth or forfeit your life.”
What a quaint demand, Mae thought, and that voice – not at all menacing.
Without waiting for orders, the two soldiers riding the carriage raised crossbows and fired. One bolt hit the highwayman on the right, and he toppled like a flour sack. Mae saw in astonishment how true the metaphor rang; the hulking figure turned out to be some kind of scarecrow propped up to hold a torch. The middle highwayman returned fire, but his shot went wide. Being no longer threatened, the guards on horseback drew their swords and prepared to jump the barrier. Thus, the would-be robber and failed marksman realized defeat, turned his horse, and fled in the opposite direction.
“After him!” the lead soldier yelled.
Four guards spurred their horses, cleared the obstacle without much effort, and gave chase. They reached the third robber, and a swift sword stroke exposed another scarecrow. Still hiding behind the stone, Mae watched in disbelief. What a disgrace of a robbery.
Still, the night held more surprises as the fallen tree erupted in blazing flames. Renya had adjusted the original plan, seeing the duke separated from most of his guards. Roused from her bewilderment, Mae jumped into action and cast her spells. A ball of bright light exploded in midair. Her second spell raised the hidden chain. The failed robber had already disappeared down the road. The soldiers giving chase did not fare as well. Blinded, three horses in full-out tilt hit the chain. Yells and cries followed as men and beasts fell onto the bed of sharp stones beyond. Mae heard the sickening sound of bones breaking.
The fourth horse reared up, nearly throwing off the rider. Hanging on for dear life, the man lost his helmet, and Mae could see his face illuminated by firelight. The sight froze Mae in mid-stride and rooted her to the spot. It can’t be him. How can he be here after all these years? But it must be him. The distinctive scar over one eye left no doubt. His hair had gone gray, yet Mae was certain. She would never forget that face. Bile rose in her throat, and something else, raw and powerful, clawed its way up deep inside her, blocking out all other thoughts. Finally, she would have her revenge. However, the guard regained control over his horse before she could reach him. He spurred his beast on and followed the robber into the night, unaware of who had recognized him.
Running footsteps announced the approach of Sigri and Renya.
“The coach is gone!” yelled Sigri, “they fled like the devil chased them.”
“Where are the soldiers?” Renya wheezed, trying to catch her breath after the dash.
“Three are over there. One got away” Mae’s eyes followed the retreating rider, her face pale as curdled milk. “I’m going after him.”
“Is it worth it?” Sigri asked. “When the duke reaches the next village, he’ll raise the alarm. He must have recognized our use of magic, and the hunters will be after us like wolfhounds.”
“Actually, they might use wolfhounds,” Sigri amended after a short pause.
“I don’t care!” Mae’s temper flared up. “You harvest what you can and get away. Take one horse and go home. I will follow later.”
“Why? What is going on? Why follow him?” Renya asked.
Mae ignored her and approached one of the robbers’ spooked horses. Close up, it looked more like a draft horse than a swift ride, but better to have a dull blade than bare hands in a knife fight. Reaching out with her mind, she soothed the frightened animal. Still, Renya didn’t let her get away with it. She had seen the look in Mae’s eyes and knew something was amiss.
“Why are you chasing after him? Who is that soldier?” Renya repeated, her voice raised.
“No time to explain. Get to the others before it’s too late, or everything was for naught.”
“But, what about you? Don’t you want any? There are three of them.” Sigri sounded confused; Mae’s behavior was irrational.
In place of an answer, Mae climbed on the horse’s back and urged it forward. The soldier had quite a head start. Still, he would follow the robber, who had entered the woods not far down the road. Their going would be slow, and Mae was an excellent tracker. Without a glance backward, she left her sisters and the bounty behind.
* * *
“Idiot,” Jarne scolded himself. “You are such an utter fool.”
The failed robber had galloped away as fast as his stolen mount could carry him before he entered the dark forest, following a deer trail. On foot, he led his horse through dense brush. He couldn’t continue riding as low-hanging branches would crack his skull. Only sparse moonlight filtered through the canopy, making his path treacherous. Jarne pondered if he should leave the horse behind. Farmer Holsgrim would skin him alive for leaving his horse in the forest as a feast for the wolves. But it might not make any difference since Jarne had stolen all three and already abandoned two of the farmer’s horses at the ambush site.
‘Ambush’ was a grand word for this night’s fiasco. How could he be so foolish to believe he would succeed? In the stories, the daring highwayman always gets the bounty and sometimes even wins the girl. Stories – was he a child? He was almost a man grown and still as stupid as a bairn in swaddling clothes. But he had no choice; he needed the money. His mother was sick. Now what?
Jarne heard noises behind him. At least one of the duke’s guards had followed. It was no good; he wasn’t fast enough with the horse in tow. With a sad glance back, Jarne let go of the reins and took off alone. He knew the forest well, having grown up in its shadow. A large tree stood not far from here that he had climbed often, and he could take cover high up in its branches. No soldier would be able to reach him there.
* * *
Herleif Ungrin, captain of the guards for Duke Finsgúr, pursued the robber with haste. He still didn’t comprehend what had happened. Someone had dared to attack the duke, and Herleif would bring his lord the head of that foolish criminal. Leaving his injured men behind, the captain followed the fleeing figure into the forest. The path was almost pitch dark. Still, the long years of service to the duke had brought him some benefits. While he had lost an eye during a fight years ago, the King’s sorceress had enhanced his remaining eye as a reward. Thus, despite the darkness, no prey could escape him. And countless thorn thickets grew in this forest, tearing the clothes of even the most careful sneak thief. It reminded Herleif of the child’s game, where players left clues along the way. All he needed to do was follow the marked trail.
Climbing up another steep slope, Herleif saw the robber’s abandoned horse. The miscreant had realized that someone was chasing him. Herleif, too, left his horse behind. He would be faster without it, and he quickened his stride. He’d better catch the man soon. The duke would expect his guard captain to apprehend the criminal, and Herleif did not dare disappoint the duke – long years of service or not.
* * *
Mae liked horses, but she did not enjoy riding. Her slender frame felt awkward on the big, lumbering beast. Reaching the spot where she believed both robber and soldier had entered the woods, she jumped off its back and entered on foot. She could feel where the trespassers had disturbed the forest’s slumber. Nimble and quick like a cat, Mae wove her way through the foliage, driven by her burning desire for revenge. Usually, packs of wolves hunted at night. But tonight, a different kind of predator prowled the woods.
It took her some fifteen minutes to reach the spot where two horses wandered riderless. I must return to claim these animals before the wolves do. Whether she liked to ride or not, she needed to flee after her deeds were done. Moreover, she could sell the horses on her way home. Mae, like most witches, did not need much money; almost everything she needed she could get on her own. But a few things were easier to buy, like metal tools and foreign spices.
Tracking the two men ahead, Mae came to a clearing where a giant oak stood proudly, and she crouched down. In the dim light, Mae could see her quarry gathering dry wood as if to build a bonfire. Where was the robber? Mae looked around, and it took her a few moments before she spotted another figure hiding among the branches. The hound must have treed his prey but could not follow him up. Does he want to smoke him out or burn the entire tree down? Either way, his actions gave Mae an excellent opportunity to finish them both.
Mae did not kill lightly. She tried to target only people who ‘deserved’ it, like Duke Finsgúr. This was her obsession, as Renya had called it. Still, she had anticipated also harming the duke’s men-at-arms in tonight’s ambush. Mae did not know whether those men were evil. But then, Evil is such a vague word. Undoubtedly, the soldiers worked for an evil person, and the three witches needed their life force.
However, when she recognized the one-eyed guard, this man eclipsed all other thoughts. That’s why she followed him, craving vengeance. Almost twenty years ago, this soldier had commanded the men who attacked Mae’s home. He had killed Mae’s parents, abducted her little brother, and destroyed her life forever. Mae never knew his name. At the time, she had only been able to take his eye. Tonight, she would take his life, and for once, she would enjoy it.
And the robber? She would kill him as well. The evening hadn’t gone as planned because of his ill-timed disruption. As a result, Mae couldn’t harvest any life force from the other three men downed by her chain. All the effort wasted, and he would pay – robbers are evil. Anyhow, why do I care? Does the wolf care whether the stag is evil?
But she did. A small voice in her head, planted there by her dying mother’s wish, demanded her to be Good. And if her nature did not allow her to be purely good, she did at least try. While pondering her moral dilemma, Mae watched the movement of the two men and prepared her attack. This time, nothing would get in her way.
The one-eyed guard had built his firewood pile under the robber’s hideout. The moment he returned with another armload of wood, Mae uttered her spell, and a loud crack sounded through the night air. The enormous tree branch on which the robber hid broke off, knocking the unsuspecting soldier to the ground.
Mae was on him at once. He didn’t deserve a single extra breath. Her hands grabbed his head, and she yanked his soul out of his broken body. The deed was done in mere seconds, the process being as simple as it was violent. Requiring skin-to-skin contact, Mae mentally punctured the vessel holding the victim’s life and let the energy gush into her, accompanied by a soft glow. Warmth and light flooded her being, and her body shuddered in delight. Strength returned; hardship and pain vanished, and joyful satisfaction filled her mind. This moment of pure bliss was the true perversion of her existence – the most pleasurable reward for the most heinous act.
As always, it took a few heartbeats for her to return to the present moment. The first distraction reaching her was a nearby whimper. The robber? Mae let go of the soldier’s lifeless body, got to her feet, and looked around. As the branch broke off, the robber must have tried to jump off. But he got tangled, turned around, and landed near the trunk, his arm trapped under the fallen branch. He could not escape. Mae strode over. From his position, her next victim could have observed perfectly what just transpired. Maybe the sight of a man’s soul being ripped out and not the pain from the fall triggered the whimpering. Mae didn’t care. She had expended much magic during the last hours, not to mention the weeks and months before. And the memories of her dying parents put her in a foul mood. Robbers are evil, after all.
Standing only a few feet away, May saw his face, and shock overcame her a second time that night. This time, she didn’t recognize the robber’s identity but registered his nature. The robber was a boy, a child, really. Pale blue eyes stared out of a dirt-smeared face. He couldn’t be much older than twelve, fourteen at most. The full moon overhead revealed the unmistakable signs of panic – pupils dilated, sweat on his forehead, jaw clenched, quivering lips. But there was more, a determination not to show weakness, a desire to meet whatever may come like a man. Mae knew from experience that fear and deceit caused the actions of men far more often than bravery and honor. But this boy might still believe in often quoted but rarely exhibited virtues.
“What are you doing here, boy?” Mae demanded to know, agitation and surprise fighting for dominance in her voice.
“Get away from me, witch!”
So, he also exhibited the stupidity of most men.
“Don’t you think it wiser to guard your tongue now that you have deduced my nature?” Mae asked in a softer but even more frightening tone. “I will not ask again, what are you doing here?”
“Lying on the forest floor, trapped by a giant branch.”
Feisty, Mae had to give him that. Still, three more seconds of Mae’s icy stare broke the facade, and a floodgate of information opened.
“I need money. My mother is sick, and nobody will help.” He swallowed and continued in a deflated voice. “My brothers are dead, and my father left. The neighbors close their doors when they see me. The healer demands payments, the medicine is expensive, and the duke has money, more than he can ever spend.” Raising his voice, he challenged her. “I needed to do something; she has only me; I am the man in the house.”
“You thought you could rob the duke alone?”
“I had a plan.”
“Your scarecrows? That was a clever idea but pointless. The guards fear the duke more than any foe.”
“What is it to you, witch? What do you care for the needs and plans of humans?”
“I am human,” Mae responded, trying that same soft and silky voice. But the comment stung worse than this child could imagine. Mae yearned for nothing more than to be an ordinary human, a woman without a curse. By now, she would have grown old, maybe died. She might have had a husband, children, a small house by the sea, and friendly neighbors. Ice crept back into her voice.
“But if you insist, I can give you another, a final demonstration of my witchiness.”
In a heartbeat, the panic was back, and all dreams of manliness disappeared. A small and frightened child lay there, utterly helpless, facing his worst nightmare in the flesh. Mae might have done many evil things in her life, her existence, but she could not – she would not harm this boy.
“Listen very carefully, “Mae loomed over him. “I’ll put a hex on you. Then I’ll let you go. Your horse is where you left it. Get away from here as fast as you can.”
Returning to the whisper, Mae added: “If you tell anyone, anyone at all, what happened tonight, what you think happened tonight – you will die.”
With a fierce utterance, another bright light appeared, the tree branch flew away, and Jarne felt bathed in ice. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness again, the witch was gone.
© 2023 Axel Martens All rights reserved.
“The Ambush” is taken from the first chapter of a forthcoming novel,
Mae – A Fable of Evil and Good, by Axel Martens.