Home > Witchshadow (The Witchlands #4)

Witchshadow (The Witchlands #4)
Author: Susan Dennard

PART I


Puppeteer

 

 

ONE


One Month After the Earth Well Healed

She knew she was walking into a trap. She had seen their tracks twenty paces before, just beside that bend in the road, and she had sensed their Threads even sooner.

Maybe, if she had wanted to, she could have avoided them. But she didn’t want to. She was hungry. Winter’s cusp had left nothing to forage on this side of the Ohrins, and what little she had managed to gather she’d given to her tiny companion, now waiting in a hollowed-out beech with a weasel who wasn’t really a weasel.

When she reached fifteen steps from the closest soldier, she stopped and planted her staff into the mud. It was roughly hewn silver fir, taken off a corpse two days before. Silver fir, the hill folk said, was good for warding off nightmares. So far that had not been true.

The closest man’s Threads hovered green with concentration. He was poorly hidden behind an alpine rhododendron, and even if his Threads had not given him away, the footprints speckling the road would have. Muddy from yesterday’s rain, the road had grooved so deep from travel it was practically a ditch—giving all these men in the forest brush higher ground.

Not that it would help them.

“I know you’re there,” she called.

As one, bright alarm punched across eight sets of Threads, each poorly hidden.

“And I have nothing of value,” she continued. Her voice was rough with hunger and the world had been a sickening spin for days now. If not for their Threads, she would never have been able to focus on them.

Or on the one man, now stalking toward her down the path. A Hell-Bard. She didn’t need to see his scarlet uniform to know that. The shadowy twirl at the heart of his Threads gave him away.

“We were warned about you,” he declared, pausing at twenty paces. Near enough for her to spot the ruddied nose of a man who drank too much. He smiled. “You don’t look like a threat.”

“Oh, but I am.” She lifted her right hand and flipped it his way. “Do you know what this means?”

He didn’t answer, but fresh concern rippled across the hidden soldiers’ Threads. Few people bore a filled-in circle for a Witchmark.

“And do you,” the Hell-Bard countered, drawing a gold chain from beneath his collar, “know what this means?”

She laughed at that—a dry, starving chuckle. “I guess they didn’t tell you, did they?”

His eyes thinned. He took the bait. “Tell me what?”

“They tried to make me like you, Hell-Bard.” She let a dramatic beat pass. Then added, “It didn’t work.”

The Hell-Bard swallowed now, his weight shifting and his Threads flickering like a stormy sky. He would attack soon. So would the other soldiers in the woods. Bushes shifted; branches snapped. These men did not like feeling afraid. They would end her and be done with it.

She sighed. She was tired, she was hungry, but she was not weak.

“You have two choices,” she offered them. “I will cleave you or I will kill you. There is still a chance at life if you choose—”

“Nommie filth,” the Hell-Bard spat.

And inwardly, she smiled, grateful he’d revealed his true values. It would make this next part so much easier. Or rather, it would make the nightmares so much easier. After all, she had already decided to finish these men; now she simply had a good reason.

The man whispered his blade free. He attacked, charging with sword arm high. Foolish. Easily dodged. Men always did underestimate her.

When he reached her, she swept sideways, planting her heel on the path’s inclined side. She launched up, a brief boost of speed and air. Then she twirled past him with staff extended.

It cracked the back of his head, right where spine met skull. Not hard enough to kill, nor hard enough to knock him out. Just enough to drop him to his knees and buy her the time she needed.

She wasn’t done with him yet.

As seven more soldiers charged toward her—none of them Hell-Bards, none as well trained—she grabbed the closest man’s Threads. Just a simple reach, a simple grasp. They were slippery and electric. Like river eels made of lightning.

She brought them to her mouth and chomped down in a single movement that had become as natural to her as swinging her staff. All she had to do was yank and bite. Yank and bite.

The man began to cleave.

He was not a witch, so no wild winds or vicious flames ripped loose. But he didn’t need such powers to cleave. Magic dwelled in everyone in the Witchlands, and now that same magic burned through him. He was a pot boiling over.

He screamed, a sound of such agony it stopped every soldier in their tracks. It did not stop her, though. Instead, she wound her fingers more deeply into his shredded Threads, even as it sent fire through her veins. “Kill them.”

So the man did, turning on two of his fellows—vicious, bloodied attacks with teeth and clawed hands—before a third man finally brought him down.

She was ready for that. Waiting for it. This was not her first fight, and it would not be her last. With a yank and a bite she cleaved a second man. Then a third, ignoring the raw power in their Threads that made her fingers shriek. Made power and pain judder into her soul.

The first time she’d done this—cleaved someone and held on—she’d fallen over. The second time, she’d been smart enough to lean against a tree. The third time, she’d had the staff.

Soon, her three Cleaved had burned to empty, blistered husks, framed by the tarry oil that their blood had become. Surrounding them were the brutalized bodies of their fellows.

Steam coiled in the air.

Slowly, her head still throbbing with power, but her fingers finally empty, she approached the only man left alive. He was pinned to the mud, his own gold-hilted blade stabbed deep into his stomach. It had been shoved there by one of her Cleaved.

He would die slowly from that wound, and contrary to what Hell-Bards wanted the world to believe, they were not truly dead men. There was still a final precipice from which they could never return.

She came to a stop before him and gazed down. She would take that blade once he was dead; it was too fine to leave behind.

“Nommie bitch,” he said.

“That’s not polite.” She knew what she must look like, towering over him with no expression and a teardrop scar beside her eye. She knew because she had seen that face in her dreams—in their dreams. They would not let her forget, no matter how fast she ran.

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