Chapter 11. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

KT walked through the small settlement alone. It was either very late or very early. Her muscles aches but none of the little pains really registered in her mind. Men and women still moved around her with torches that cut through the heavy darkness. Even with the damage that had been caused during the night’s battle, the camp was already starting to return to normal. 

Teams of men were busy replacing the damaged spikes while a group of women were working to move torn sandbags and shattered wood. It seemed that despite the size of the place, it was designed to be dismantled and rebuilt in a hurry. 

She avoided the workers as she wandered around the buildings without any clear purpose in mind. She had been given a small room in one of the buildings but didn’t feel like resting yet. Kai was still in the main hall drinking with the bulk of the MacFeelans and Déaþscúa had disappeared into another building with Niall and a few others to discuss their plans for the assault. 

At the edge of the camp she stopped to stare out into the forest. It was a cloudy night and she couldn’t see more than a few foot into the trees but her eyes weren’t focussed anyway. Her mind was replaying the battle again and again. She was trying to rationalise her actions, her emotions, but she couldn’t shrug off the little voice that constantly reminded her how exhilarating it had been. 

When it had just been goblins she could compartmentalise it in her mind. They were monsters trying to kill her and she was just defending herself against ugly creatures of evil. It wasn’t so easy to rationalise the killing of fellow humans even if the circumstances were still the same. Never in her wildest dreams did she imagine shooting at living humans. 

The battle had been a blur. She couldn’t say for sure that she had killed anyone, but then she couldn’t say she hadn’t. The thought had barely even crossed her mind until after it was all over. She had been prepared to kill goblins again and then the men had just appeared. She hadn’t had time to reevaluate the situation. She had blood on her hands now. How could she ever return to a normal life?

“Ye look troubled, girl,” said a woman’s voice behind her. 

She turned to see Niall’s wife, Maridia, walking towards her. The woman walked with a softness that belied her size. She was not exactly fat but had a stout build and a more masculine frame that stood at odds to her flowing blonde hair. Her face was plain and her hands were coarse. 

“Ye did well last night. Déaþscúa tells me that it was only yer third battle. He has a knack fer finding fighters.”

“I wouldn’t call the first two battles. I didn’t do much any of the times we had to fight.” KT answered absently. “Déaþscúa saved us every single time we’ve been in danger.”

Maridia laughed. It was a rich sound. “If ye were te worry about being no good in a fight because Déaþscúa saved ye then nobody in this world would feel confident in their skills. There are two types of people for the most part; those that owe their lives te Déaþscúa and those whose lives he reaped.”

The words didn’t comfort KT. “How are we supposed to keep fighting when everyone else is so much stronger. I gave it my all but it still felt like I didn’t do anything.”

“That’s because ye didn’t,” Maridia answered bluntly. She only smiled when KT looked up at her. “Ye ken that ye are weak. That is nae why ye wander the camp alone. I saw ye during the battle. Weakness was nae a concern then. Quite the opposite in fact.”

KT looked away from her now. She cast her eyes across the forest for something to distract herself with but found nothing.

“Do nae be afraid of that fire, girl. Do nae let it consume ye either. It is a careful balance te be sure but it is one we all walk. Ye see, the MacFeelans love te fight. It is in their blood. They see it as a big game with the ultimate gamble resting on it. That is what battle means te them.

“Fer myself, my family were slaves. We fought fer our freedom. Fer us, battle is a tool. A tool fer free lives and a tool fer revenge. I like te fight because I choose my battles so that the world is always a better place once the dust settles. 

“Others despise death yet fight because they believe in a cause or want te protect something. It isnae what runs through yer head in the heat of battle that decides yer character but the reasons ye continue te fight in the battles. So girl, why is it that ye continue te fight?”

KT stared at the older woman in silence. She felt strangely stupid beside the woman, like a schoolgirl who hadn’t done her homework standing next to a teacher. “I… don’t know. I thought that it was to save my family but really I am just dead weight on Déaþscúa’s shoulders. I just can’t sit and do nothing. I fight because I am too selfish to sit back and go mad with worry about what is happening. What does that say about my character?”

She could feel tears in her eyes. She tried to calm herself but was finding it hard to under the woman’s soft smile. 

“Tell me,” Maridia began. “Do ye ken why Déaþscúa fights? He fights because it is all he kens. It is his only skill. He doesnae enjoy it and he doesnae fight for any greater cause. He fights because it gives his life purpose. What then does that say about his character?”

KT didn’t have the chance to answer though when there was a crash behind a nearby building. A pile of wood clattered to the ground with Friseal sprawled in the centre of them. 

“Stop ye nosying, Friseal MacFeelan. What would yer poor mum think, eh?” Maridia announced sternly. Despite her firm tone of voice she offered KT an amused look.

“Sorry, Mari.” he rumbled as he tried to recollect the wood. “I wasnae nosying, honest. Niall sent me te find ye. Lizzy has come te visit. She hasnae been in years. Niall thought ye should ken.”

“Thank ye, Friseal. I suppose we’d better go and greet her.” She turned her attention to KT. “Ye are coming too. Nae point ye standing ‘round here moping.”

Meeting yet more people didn’t sound appealing to KT but when compared to standing outside getting frostbite or going to bed to be alone with her thoughts, it didn’t sound quite so bad. She nodded and followed behind them.

News must have spread fast because MacFeelans clustered around the building that Friseal was leading them to. The crowd parted around Maridia without her having to even raise a hand.

They stepped inside but KT froze in the doorway. Déaþscúa and Niall were stood either side of a women who had fixed KT with a frosty glare the moment she had entered. Déaþscúa moved between the two women hastily.

“Now, I know that when you were last together things may have gotten a little…heated, but we’re all friends here, okay?” Déaþscúa said in his best mediator voice.

“Friends?” She tried to drug us and make us forget everything,” KT shouted.

Elizabeth sniffed indignantly. “Sticks and stones. I didn’t raise a hand yet you resorted straight to violence.”

“Sticks and stones? Try drugs and magic! I’d say that warrants self defence.”

“Ladies, ladies, let’s all calm down,” Déaþscúa interjected.

KT glared at him. “You left us with her knowing that she was going to make us forget. Don’t think for a moment that this had slipped my mind.”

“Well, yes…”

“And you left me to deal with them after inviting them into my house. You know how I hate young people,” Elizabeth added. Déaþscúa stepped back with a defeated sigh. She then turned her attention back to KT. 

“You might see it as a betrayal but we were only doing what was in your best interest. I know you know this, but like all Powerless, you are too pigheaded to accept it. Consider yourself a dog being force fed medicine to cure an infection. You may fight and bite but at the end of the day it is the owner who’s in the right.”

KT shook her head. “Is that supposed to make me feel better? Your go to explanation is to compare me to a dog? Really?” She took a moment to collect herself. “I know that I’m putting myself in danger here. I’m many things but an idiot isn’t one. It’s my choice to make, not yours.”

“Different world, different opinions,” Elizabeth added. “It is better to be a clued-in idiot than a naive scholar but that doesn’t matter anymore. You’re here and I’ll waste no more of my time trying to protect you from your own stubbornness. Now, Niall, what was it that you wished to discuss?”

At a motion from Niall, the crowd began to disperse. KT left with them, choosing to find Kai rather than spending more time in the woman’s presence. She found him where she had left him, sat in the drinking hall surrounded by drunken Scotsmen and women. He was looking worse for wear now but was flirting with a young MacFeelan woman with his usual charisma. 

A giant of a man beside Kai offered a chair as KT approached. She sat down and was instantly handed a mug of ale. She ignored it then tapped Kai on the shoulder. Gradually he turned to face her.

“Elizabeth is here,” she told him. “Niall apparently wants her for something.”

“Oh,” Kai answered slowly. “Cool. She looked pretty.”

“Pretty? She tried to drug us!”

“True. But compared to everyone else we’ve met, that’s almost a warm welcome. Plus she gave us biscuits. I’d be angry but then I have a lot to be angry about already. You know?”

KT tried to slide the drink from his hand. “I think you’ve had enough for tonight.”

“That’s funny ‘cos judging by the fact I can still think, I haven’t had enough yet.” Despite his worlds he let his sister take the mug. “Do you ever wonder why we are who we are? Why I am a bad person who needs to act like a bad person to hide how bad of a person I am? I killed people and it felt good. Then I tried to feel regret but didn’t. Haha. People don’t like over-competitive sociopaths, but lovable drunks, ha, buy ‘em another round and laugh at their antics.”

 KT hated to see him like this. She stood up and pointed to the hulking MacFeelan beside her. “Could you help me get him to bed? He can’t walk so you’ll have to carry him.”

“Aye. As ye say, miss.” The man unfolded himself smoothly despite the fact that he must have drunk even more than Kai. He hoisted the younger man easily from his chair and led the way out of the room. Kai protested weakly then slumped further.

Without needing direction, the man moved through the camp to a small building near the back where the twins were to spend the night. There were several individual rooms that were set up for guests to sleep. Kai was placed onto his bed then the MacFeelan left them to return to the main hall.

KT was about to relent and head to her own bed when the front door to the building opened. She could hear footsteps then Kai’s door opened. Déaþscúa and Elizabeth stood at the other side. The witch remained stony faced but Déaþscúa offered KT a smile.

“It’s going to be a big day tomorrow. We came to offer you both something to help you sleep, though it would seem that your brother has found his own solution,” Déaþscúa told her. 

Elizabeth held out a vial of thick purple liquid. KT eyed it sceptically. 

“This time it is your choice,” Elizabeth said primly. “You’d be a fool not to take it but I will not try to force you.” She placed it on a small bedside table.

KT looked to Déaþscúa. He shrugged. “It’s only a potion that will put you into a deep sleep for a few hours. It’s what most of us use to stay fully functional when we may only get a brief chance to rest. You have my word on that, for what it’s worth. Either way, we’re calling it a night. I’ll be in the far room if you need me for anything.” He drank a purple potion of his own then left them. Elizabeth followed.

KT gingerly took the bottle then made the short walk to the next room. She changed into the pyjamas that she had bought after fleeing Elizabeth’s house then sat on her bed. She stared into the liquid as though it could impart some kind of answers to her. Despite everything she didn’t feel tired so eventually she made the decision and drank. 

It tasted a lot nicer than it looked, sweet and faintly warm like the hot lemonade and honey that her father had made for them when they had been ill. She made a note to herself that she needed to take the time to learn how to tell what potions did what. Even as she thought this, she could already feel her mind growing foggy. She laid down clumsily and threw the covers over her. Even before the sheets had settled, her vision had grown dark and her consciousness had faded.

*     *     *

Morning came and KT awoke without the slightest sense of grogginess. The same couldn’t be said for Kai. It took all of her effort to get him up and he seemed less than happy about it.

“Just kill me. I’m not a religious man but if I was I’d be cursing the bastards name,” he muttered as they made their way to the hall. The smell of roasted meat filled the air and went some way to perking him back up. KT didn’t bother to point out that he only had himself to blame. 

Inside the hall was already packed. Spirits seemed even higher today at the prospect of taking the battle to Annis. KT wished that she felt the same. Déaþscúa had a plan but in her limited experience with him his plans were never subtle. It was as though he sometimes forgot that others couldn’t instantly heal and fight toe-to-toe with anything. 

A moment of looking showed that Déaþscúa was already sat at one of the tables. Elizabeth sat at one side of him, picking at the meat on her plate with a look that said porridge would have been much more preferable. At his other side was Friseal who spoke enthusiastically with Déaþscúa, his arms swinging around expressively. Two seats were empty next to Elizabeth.

Kai collapsed into the seat closest to Elizabeth with enough clarity of mind to put himself between KT and the woman. KT sat beside him and pulled some food over to herself. She was amazed when Kai didn’t begin to tear into the meat. He slouched with his head on the table groaning faintly and wincing every time a MacFeelan raised their voice.

Elizabeth frowned then reached into her belt pouch. She pulled out a smaller glass filled with black liquid.

“Seeing you last night I assumed that you might want this,” she said, offering the vial to Kai. “It will help clear your system of toxins.”

Kai grabbed it and threw the liquid down his throat without a second thought. His face instantly turned bright red as he began to gag. His body shook and he slammed his head into the table repeatedly. 

“Jesus Christ! What the hell was in that? My tastebuds actually want to throw up!”

Elizabeth smiled sweetly at him. “Well, your raised voice and vigorous movements would suggest that it had the desired effect, yes? Remember that taste, it might make you reconsider drinking so much next time.”

There was a loud clang of metal. Niall had stood up at the head of his table. Every face turned to him.

“Brothers, sisters, cousins and friends! Today will be a grand day. Nae longer will we sit back te fight the dregs that Annis throws at us. Today we take the fight right te her!” Niall shouted. There was a cheer from all of the MacFeelans. “It has been our duty to keep Fel-Achoir clear of life since our forebearer, Ciaran MacFeelan, cursed our ancestral home in his quest fer power. Dark magic hangs over those ancient stones that Annis wishes te tap inte. We willnae let her succeed.”

“We’ll draw out Annis’ forces for a pitched battle while Déaþscúa and his wee helpers seek out the black witch herself. Lizzy will be with us, adding her magic te our own. With her help this will be less of a battle than pest control. So eat well and drink yer fills.”

Over the course of the speech, Kai had seemed to recover most of his appetite. He turned to Elizabeth with a mouthful of beef. “They seem to respect you a lot for a thin woman who makes potions. You really that strong with magic?”

“The strongest in this room,” she said proudly. “Although that isn’t saying much. I was a councilor in the English Moot until I left over a… difference of opinion.”

KT leaned over. “What, even stronger than Déaþscúa?” 

Elizabeth glanced over at Déaþscúa with a frown. “On a technical level, yes. Magic is like an energy that our bodies create. If you exercise heavily your body will run out of energy until it is replenished. Unlike energy though, some people naturally have larger or smaller reserves of it. As a witch I have a larger well of power to draw upon than anyone here. Déaþscúa, well, he doesn’t exactly have a well of power. His entire body is more like a conduit for it. He cannot draw upon a lot of power but he cannot burn himself out either. That is why he can push himself further than most of us would dare to go.”

KT considered this as she chewed on her food. “So that is why Annis is so powerful then? She draws upon other people’s strength as well as her own.”

“Correct.” Elizabeth said. “It is a sacrilegious practice in our society. Annis uses the lives of others to fuel her power rather than her own reserves so can use exponentially more than a regular witch. It also means that if she does not steal other’s powers she cannot use her magic. As such, she just needs to be worn down and starved of victims to be defeated.”

Déaþscúa cut in here. “But believe me, that is easier said than done. Especially when she is currently drawing power from a failed doomsday weapon. So, on that cheery note, finish up your meals. We’ll be setting off within the hour.”

Previous – Chapter 10.

Next – Chapter 12.

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