Chapter 78: The Daughters of Ramiel
Griselda shivered as she stared across the bow of the ship, to where the Serpentine River merged with the Tiberthian Sea. Waves of jade green, alabaster blue, and onyx black danced beneath a sky masked behind a sheet of apricot clouds that darkened as they spread in the direction of Lafeara’s shoreline.
“We’ve managed to outrun the storm,” Harold said with noted relief as he carried over a canteen of wine. Sedric followed, holding a small medicinal chest. Griselda grit her teeth as she focused on the box, then shifted her seal blue eyes to where Lilaru sat on a crate beside her, nervously tapping the broken ornamental hairpin against her knee.
‘We should be celebrating. Lilaru and I have crossed another name off our list. But instead—’
Griselda looked down towards the arms that lay uselessly upon the blanket draped over her lap. Her flesh was purple and black where the white of the bone did not shine through. The ice magic Carina had used to cover them melted the moment Sedric carried her onto the boat. Griselda had waited for the pain to come back, but her burned arms remained—lifeless.
“Perhaps you ought to have a drink first?” Sedric said as he took the wine canteen from Harold, pried the lid off, and offered it to Griselda. She nodded and drank as he held the drink carefully to her lips. The liquid burned all the way down, but Griselda did not miss the herbal taste hidden beneath. She smiled as Sedric removed the drink. ‘He hid it because he knows how much I hate bitter medicine.’
Lilaru snatched the canteen away and inhaled a long drink of her own.
“Ahh—I think that was meant for me,” Griselda cautioned with a twisted smile. Lilaru’s grimaced as she lowered the wine, and Griselda frowned as her twin blurred against the darkening horizon behind them. ‘On second thought, Lilaru probably needs something to help her unwind.’
The nerve-numbing medicine buzzed lightly against her consciousness as Griselda focused on her breathing. Harold brought over another chair for Lilaru while Sedric mixed a poultice of honey, lavender oil, and desert pear juice in a small bowl. The silent flute player used a small brush to spread the glaze gently over Griselda’s damaged skin, starting with the shoulder of her left arm.
“W-what do you think?” Griselda asked when Sedric reached her elbow.
His hazel-brown eyes raised towards her face with poorly masked unease. “You don’t seem to be feeling any pain.”
“I wish I could say that was entirely due to your miraculous medicine—but I haven’t been able to feel much of anything since we left the palace,” Griselda confessed with a shaky smile. “That’s probably a good thing, though.”
“Your mind could be shutting out the pain,” Sedric replied slowly. His brows furrowed as he continued his application of ointment down her forearm. “We’ll see how you feel tomorrow.”
“I’ll recover,” Griselda said confidently. “I always do.”
“Of course you will!” Lilaru retorted as she wiped away a trail of wine from her chin. “Our mission isn’t over yet.”
“Lady Griselda needs to rest!” Sedric countered sharply. “Or would you have her lose more than her arms for the sake of your vengeance?”
Griselda recognized the angry madness in her twin’s eyes as Lilaru rose from the crate to glare down at the flute player. “Lilaru.” Griselda shook her head and turned to Sedric. “It will take time for my arms to heal—”
“If you were anyone else,” Sedric muttered tensely.
“But we’re not!” Lilaru hissed out with a pointed glare.
“Please don’t argue—we should be celebrating,” Griselda protested with a groan. “Lil, give me some more of that wine.”
Lilaru’s anger faded instantaneously as she nodded. She helped Griselda drink more of the herbal wine and brushed away the strands of blonde hair that had pulled free from her braids. “You can have the rest—it tastes strange anyway.”
“I prepared it with some medicinal herbs in the likelihood that one of you would come back injured,” Sedric informed tersely. “Though I am getting tired of patching you both up.”
“You are as wise as you are kind, Sedric,” Griselda responded wistfully as more of her body drifted into a numb-like state. Her eyelids grew heavy as the muscles in her tired neck and back finally began to relax. The back of her head bumped gently against the ship’s mast as the pale sails spun above her eyes then steadied. Griselda sighed and imagined it was her breath that filled the sails with wind that would carry them back to the port of Varhaider, where Madam Maylea would be waiting.
‘And then, as long as I can regain the use of my arms, we will continue to our next target, Duke Tyrrell.’
Their first encounter with the Witch Dukes of Ventrayna was not a memory Griselda or Lilaru cared to relive. The day the treacherous half-witch, Isaac, had led Emperor Arius’s assassins inside the Palace of Popes.
Griselda still remembered the embroidery of the holy robes her father, Pope Ivan, wore as he knelt before the statue of the Three Saints. She remembered the sounds of footsteps filling the sacred alter room as Isaac swept inside. None of the Pope’s guards thought to stop the witch hunter because Isaac was the Pope’s favorite and most trusted servant—which made the moment that Isaac slit Ivan’s throat while he prayed all the more confusing and terrifying.
The Pope’s wife, Lady Danika, had grabbed her three young daughters and fled as the other witch-hunters attempted to quell Isaac and his band of traitors. A night of horror followed, which none of the Pope’s family survived unscathed.
The Pope’s oldest son, Mathias, then only seventeen, rushed his mother and sisters towards a secret exit in the Pope’s library. Behind the shelves of sacred relics and documents, a tunnel of limestone twisted down into the earth that would lead them to the Holy Sepulcher where Harmonia Bozidar, the Third Saint and Matriarch of their family, had been laid to rest.
Danika pleaded with Mathias to join them, but the Pope’s eldest son would not abandon his pride or inheritance so readily.
“I will avenge Father and bring my brothers to you safely, Divine Mother.”
Griselda had been proud of Mathias’s courage and determination in that moment. Certain the young warrior cardinal would carry out his oath and then take their father’s place on the Holy Throne of Zarus.
Instead, the Emperor’s three Witch Dukes dumped the heads of the Pope’s three oldest sons, Mathias, Haskwell, and Zoran, at Danika’s feet. The broken wails that filled the sacred sepulcher still echoed in Griselda’s nightmares. Jericho, the Pope’s youngest, sickly son, was beaten near unconscious on the floor while the three Witch Dukes took turns raping the Pope’s wife before turning to defile her daughters as well.
They had been spared death by the arrival of Arius, who laughed as Jericho burned his eyes with coals to avoid watching his sisters’ rape. Then Isaac presented the Witch Emperor with the Pope’s holy sword, and the heathen witches roared their triumph as Arius melted the relic into a pile of burning metal.
Arius pardoned the survivors of the Pope’s family for their father’s crimes, then sold them into slavery. All except Jericho, who the Witch Emperor kept on a leash like a blind dog.
For days after, Danika and her daughters waited in cells while their palace and city burned. On the fourth day, Griselda woke to find their mother had died in her sleep. A small mercy for the noblewoman who had suffered the unendurable and lost the will to live.
Afterward, Griselda, Lilaru, and little Nesta were presented to the three Witch Dukes as a gift from the Emperor. A year later, while living as Duke Zenon’s favorite slave, Griselda finally found the opportunity to stab her master, the Empress’s older brother, in his sleep. She made her escape from the palace and was rescued from pursuit by Sedric and a group of slaves from old Zarus who had built up a small resistance. Saving Griselda had cost Sedric most of his comrades, but he followed her relentlessly, compelled by his oath to serve the descendants of the Pope.
After Duke Zenon’s death, the other Ventrayna Dukes took a greater interest in their palace security and more pleasure in viciously abusing their Zarus slaves. It was some eight months before they found a way to free Lilaru. Griselda’s twin sister had been broken physically and mentally by Duke Zenaku before he sent her back to the slave markets after losing interest. Sedric’s younger brother died in the daring ambush and rescue that finally freed Lilaru from captivity.
‘I will never be able to repay the debt I owe him,’ Griselda reflected ruefully as Sedric wound her injured left arm in a light gauze.
They never found little Nesta. After months of watching Duke Tyrrell’s house and bribing the slaves who went in and out with what little money they possessed, they learned why. Lilaru, whose mind was fragile even on the best of days, sank into a dark pit of depression when Sedric brought word of Nesta’s death.
The rumors implicated the house of Lord Haemish Emerson, the Emperor’s Advisor and Ambassador to Lafeara. Lord Haemish had bought a slave who matched Nesta’s description off Duke Tyrrell, only to dump her body in the desert a week later. It wasn’t the closure the twins had been praying for and without a body to verify, let alone bury, even Griselda was unwilling to accept their failure.
‘If Madam Maylea had not found us then, we might have given up on living. But she helped Lilaru recover her broken mind and taught us how to survive, how to look forward.’ Griselda shivered as Sedric finished tying the gauze in place around her right arm. He placed the limp limb across her lap and put away his ointments and tools without saying a word, but Griselda could tell he was worried. Even for her, this much damage would be putting the bloodline of saints to the test. ‘If Jericho can regrow his eyes, then I’m sure I can recover from this.’
Griselda and Lilaru had learned of their brother’s liberation and subsequent coronation as Zarus’s next Pope while still in captivity. They had swallowed down their bitterness and anger when neither he nor the cardinals of Zarus came looking for them, but they never forgot. Whispers of the demise of the Pope’s family, leaving only Jericho to carry on the bloodline of Saints, soon reached their ears as they trained under Madam Maylea.
Despite Maylea’s offer to reunite them with their brother, the twins firmly declined.
“Jericho already considers us dead. If he knows we are alive, he will stop us from pursuing our mission,” Griselda had reasoned.
“And while the Witch Emperor is focused on Jericho, we will get our revenge,” Lilaru quickly agreed.
‘It was the right choice. Now only two Dukes remain, and the Emperor has lost his favorite Advisor as well.’
A spark of light burning beneath the folds of her bandages pulled Griselda’s gaze towards her right arm. The sigil of a black flame glowed as the thin gauze darkened and wilted beneath its heat.
‘Is that—’ Griselda’s jaw clamped shut even as her chest constricted tightly.
“Looks like it might start raining,” Lilaru observed sullenly as she returned to Griselda’s side, wrapped in a blanket with an open bottle of wine in one hand. “We should get you inside. Keep those bandages dry.”
“Your sister is right, Lady Griselda.”
Griselda turned to where Saul, the usually silent bodyguard Madam Maylea had assigned to their little troupe, leaned against the railing with his back to them. She smiled sourly in response. Although Griselda trusted Madam Maylea, trusting a water witch who worked as a mercenary for coin was another matter.
“Can’t you ask your god for calmer weather?” Griselda asked with an arched smile.
Saul snorted and turned towards her. “My goddess works beneath the waves—” he gestured over the railings towards the turbulent ocean “—not above them. Perhaps you should pray to yours?”
“That’s enough blasphemy from you, witch,” Harold growled as he hefted his staff and snatched the bottle of wine from Lilaru’s hand.
“Hey!” The younger twin growled as she tackled him from behind. “I wasn’t done with that.”
“I wasn’t either when you lifted it off me. There’s plenty more below deck if you’re thirsty, spoiled princess,” Harold mocked, unhindered by her weight. The giant drummer headed towards the ship’s cabin and ducked as he reached the door. Lilaru hopped off and made a rude gesture to his back before adjusting her blanket and returning eagerly to Griselda’s side.
“Harold is working on our meal. Is there anything, in particular, you’d like, Griselda?”
“Something sweet,” Griselda replied, her gaze still focused on Saul, who stared up at the ship’s sails critically. She followed his gaze and frowned at the strong breeze, which seemed to change directions intermittently. “Is something wrong, Saul?”
“Yeah,” the water witch muttered with a faint growl. “The wind doesn’t feel right. Hasn’t felt right since we left the capital.”
“We’re still making good progress,” Sedric commented as he returned carrying a shawl that he gently placed around Griselda’s shoulders and bandaged arms. “Perhaps it’s the storm gaining on us again.”
“I don’t like it,” Saul growled forcefully.
“What’s he going on about?” Harold asked as he returned with two waterskins and a platter of dried fruit, dried meat, and flatbread.
“The wind,” Lilaru replied, the usual playfulness gone from her voice. “Are we being followed, Saul?”
“What does a mercenary water witch know about wind or sailing—”
“I know the sea, and this isn’t—” Saul stopped as his eyes widened in alarm. “Wind witches.”
“What?” Lilaru protested. Sedric reflexively pulled his short swords from their scabbards while Harold set the platter down on the nearest crate then flexed his staff-wielding arm. “Where?”
“Never mind that,” Sedric said anxiously as he glanced back towards Griselda. “Get your sister below deck, Lilaru!”
“Too late!” Saul hissed in a low whisper barely heard above the waves around them.
With the moon hidden behind the storm clouds, only the light of the ship’s lantern illuminated the three dark figures that slowly settled down onto the boat around them. Griselda stared at the silver wolf masks and black robes that shrouded their identities.
“Well, well, visitors at this hour?” Harold called out with forced bravado. “To what do we owe this unexpected visit?”
“We have no quarrel with the witches of Lafeara,” Sedric added quickly, in a much calmer, diplomatic tone. “Why have you sought us out?”
“We are here at our Witch King’s command,” a male voice answered from the robed witch perched above them upon the gaff of the mainsail. “We have been sent to ensure your unrepentant silence.”
“You mean our deaths?” Saul interpreted with a cynical bark.
The wind in the sails suddenly died, and a chill ran up Griselda’s spine as she felt the air around them take on a threatening, devilish presence. A moment later, her view of the witch was obscured as Sedric lept in front of her, his blades crossed against an invisible blow that slid him back against Griselda’s knees. The sharp cry that followed whipped Griselda’s head to where Saul’s boots were already vanishing over the side of the ship. Then Harold’s war cry cut off mid-way, followed by a strange groan as his staff clattered to the deck. The giant drummer soon followed as he fell like a great tree crashing in an all too quiet storm.
Blood pooled beneath the defeated drummer, and Sedric held onto Lilaru, whose hysterical scream shattered the deadly quiet of the witch’s magic.
‘It’s over.’ The fear pounding behind Griselda’s ears faded away as a strange memory from her past returned to her.
“Wind witches are often overlooked and underestimated because they are the most skilled at hiding their presence,” Isaac the half-witch explained as he turned the page of the painted storybook an eight-year-old Griselda had asked him to read. “By the time you realize you’re in danger, it’s too late to run. The gentlest breeze can be manipulated to cut even the strongest knight in half.”
Isaac to a picture depicting a small boy surrounded by piles of decapitated soldiers. Griselda shivered as she sat on the witch hunter’s lap, unable to look away. “A coven of Veles’s witches could rip a city apart brick by brick and leave not a single blade of straw behind. That’s why we, as witch hunters, never hesitate to put an air witch down. Innocent or guilty, it makes no difference. It is better to burn an entire hive than risk creating a pureblood devil who can turn even the Pope into their puppet with a single word. You can deny a witch earth, fire, and water, but you can’t take away the very air they breathe.”
“Your Ladyship—” Sedric’s voice, gruff and twisted in pain, pulled Griselda from the bittersweet memory as the flute player fell to one knee, still gripping his swords determinedly.
Griselda looked down at the blood which dripped beneath his bowed back and felt a hopeless chill spread down her legs.
‘No—not like this.’
“There is no point in resisting,” the air witch above them, the leader—or so Griselda presumed since he was the only one who had spoken—explained with an indifferent tone. “You’re already marked for death.” He gestured and the air wrapped around Griselda’s numb right arm, lifting it and tearing away the marred bandage over the burning flame mark that glowed against her glistening, dark purple flesh. “A few more days, and you would have experienced a slow and painful death. At least we can offer you a quicker end.”
“Griselda,” Lilaru whispered, now supporting Sedric as she turned to look at her sister. “What is he talking about?” Panic pooled in the younger twin’s eyes. Fear, denial, and madness danced in their hopeless blue depths.
‘No, I promised—I promised you would never know this fear again.’
Griselda leaned forward over her useless arms and called on what little strength remained in her legs to stand. “If death is certain, might I make a last request? I would like a moment to say goodbye to my sister.”
‘I must be brave for the both of us.’
“Granted.” The witch’s reply was so immediate and confident that Griselda wondered how many he had offered the same courtesy before sending them to the underworld. She shook the thought away as Sedric pushed Lilaru towards her. The younger twin smiled vibrantly even as she slipped closer to insanity.
“Hush,” Griselda whispered as she leaned against Lilaru’s shoulder and cursed her useless arms. “Don’t be afraid. I’m here.”
‘I will protect you—one last time.’
Lilaru wrapped her arms around Griselda tightly as she took a shaky breath. “Always,” she replied, her voice quivering with tears. “Together—until the bitter end.”
Griselda nodded and lifted her gaze to Sedric. The flute player’s beautiful hazel-brown eyes smiled with acceptance before he bowed his head at her unspoken request. Griselda looked away first as she turned her lips toward’s Lilaru’s ear and whispered, “Hold my hand.”
“Touching,” a female witch grumbled from the bow of the ship. “Let’s get this over with.”
“Agreed,” echoed the second male witch near the rudder at the back of the ship. “The storm is drawing closer, Barclay. We should finish up here and head back.”
“Be silent!” Sedric snarled with feral ferocity. “You know not—whom you address!”
“What? Two prostitutes from Zarus?” the female witch retorted with a dismissive snort. “Don’t think we missed that accent for a minute.”
“Wrong!” Sedric shouted back as Griselda continued to whisper into Lilaru’s ear. “You are in the presence of the daughters of Pope Ivan Bozidar!”
The masked witches gave no response as they glanced at each other in turn. Then the male witch at the back of the vessel laughed. “Good one. You almost had me. Everyone knows Pope Jericho is the only living member of that cursed bloodline.”
Griselda pulled away from Lilaru and smiled at her sister’s calm, tear-streaked face. Lilaru locked her right hand through Griselda’s left, and they turned to face the witch above them. The sails stilled as a flash of lightning rippled through the clouds above the ship.
“I am Griselda.”
“And I am Lilaru.”
“We are the daughters of Pope Ivan and Lady Danika. Sisters of Mathias, Haskell, Zoran, little Nesta, and Jericho, the Pope of Zarus.”
“Fuck!” hissed the male witch at the rudder as Sedric climbed slowly to his feet.
“In the name of our ancestor, Harmonia Bozidar, the Third Saint, we curse the witches of Lafeara and their King. Ramiel, we call upon you to avenge this injustice. We offer our lives, our souls, and our mortal bodies in return.”
“Wait!” the witch identified as Barclay called out even as heavy thunder boomed around them.
The ship beneath them took on a majestic glow as runes painted across the bow activated.
“Fuck this,” the female witch shouted, “you can’t reason with these fanatics. Just kill them!” The witch leapt from the bow with desperate urgency; one arm extended while her lips formed a spell. Sedric’s wrist spun in her direction as his shortsword flew free and true. The witch waved her own hand in response, then stumbled to a halt in surprise as the sword pierced through her chest.
“It’s holy ground! The whole ship!” Barclay shouted from the sails above. He dropped down and deflected Sedric’s attack with a longsword. “It can stop magic but not steel.”
With an angry, murderous shout, the other witch charged the twins as Sedric danced in place, one hand holding his sliced, bleeding gut together, while the other lifted Harold’s staff, which he swung defensively in Barclay’s direction.
“There is no escape,” the twins intoned, even as Barclay’s accomplice skewered Sedric from behind. “Ramiel has heard our plea.”
It took every bit of effort and remaining concentration Griselda could muster to turn as Barclay’s sword descended towards them and shove Lilaru over the railing with her shoulder. Lilaru’s upturned gaze remained locked on the clouds above that burst with electric power. Her awed expression illuminated by the twisting coils of lighting that fell towards the ship like the fists of the gods themselves.
Griselda was spared the look of betrayal that crossed Lilaru’s confused face as the waves enveloped her twin from sight. ‘Now it’s your turn to live for us both.’ Griselda closed her eyes, even as the tip of Barclay’s sword sprouted from her chest.
Blood pooled behind the dancer’s lips and fell as Griselda turned towards the panting, masked witch. Pale wisps of blonde hair danced around her painted face and glowing golden eyes as she blessed the doomed witch with a final smile of pity.
A lightning bolt the size of a giant oak shattered the wobbling ship, scattering its burning remains far and wide across the dark waves of the alabaster sea that reflected the destructive glow of the divine.