Caireann the Witch

Excerpt from Homecoming, Book II: Longing. Fifteen-year-old Yaret is infatuated with his much older mentor, the witch Caireann, who, despite their great affection for each other, has firmly rejected his advances. Suspecting a rival, he stoops to spying on her, and discovers more than he’s bargained for.

He departed in a worse mood than when he arrived. If there was one thing he could understand about people, it was when they lied. So, she grew tired of the boy, and now wanted a man in her life. But who? Old Cœnred had a soft spot for Caireann, Yaret could sense his affection. For years he helped mend her house, brought her gifts from the market, all while claiming it was in payment for the training she offered to his young lord. But Cœnred was so fatherly – no, it couldn’t be him. Who of the village men had business with the witch? The blacksmith? He was the strongest man in Lynton, knowledgeable at his craft, a runemaster, nearly a witch himself. But the blacksmith loved his wife, Yaret had felt the true bond between them. No, Caireann wouldn’t care for another woman’s husband. Some stranger from over the Roman Wall? A traveling scop? She distrusted musicians and storytellers. One of Botulf’s thegns? A monk from the priory? Now, that was insane… perhaps it wasn’t a man at all, but a woman! From the little she reluctantly revealed about her life before banishment from the sisterhood, Yaret knew that sisters were not above using each other’s bodies to replenish their magical powers, as well as for pure pleasure. Perhaps, she was so eager to be rid of him because she expected a secret visitor.

“Ah!” he cried out loud, spooking his horse. He had to know, even if he had to stoop to spying. He reined in and turned back. As much as he suffered from jealousy and doubt, it never occurred to him to simply force his way into her soul – the witch had her boy trained well, like a giant wolfhound who meekly licks the hand of the houndmaster when it could easily sever it with one bite of the mighty jaws.

It was near midnight when he returned to Caireann’s. The moon had risen, and cast an even light over the glen. Yaret dismounted and walked his horse in the shadow of the trees, before tying it a good distance away from the house. A simple charm quieted the animal, and another, a more complex one, made it undetectable to forest predators.

He didn’t need to look in to know the house was empty, so he shut his eyes, and stood motionless, letting the night whisper to him what to do; then with light, silent steps he strode into the forest, following the invisible trace Caireann left. With his true sight he could see she’d taken her mushroom potion which enabled the old magic Yaret possessed innately by the virtue of his Alvan blood. The potion never failed, but after using it the witch would fall ill for days with Yaret caring for her; and so it bothered him that she was using strong magic in his absence. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for her, and she was keeping secrets from him. As he walked on, he quickly executed a spell veiling him from the eyes physical or magical: unless Caireann or her lover knew to look at Yaret directly, all they would notice was a shadow among the trees.

His true sight led him towards a light, which grew in brightness as he approached. It was a round patch, overgrown with bracken. Yaret crouched behind an uprooted tree, trying to quiet his heart. He was wrong to think she’d bother sneaking into the woods for a secret meeting. Caireann was alone. It looked like she was already traveling, eyes rolled up, her unseeing gaze turned towards other dimensions.

Skyclad, she was floating several feet above ground, over the fern canopy, her toes brushing fronds. Her arms outstretched, palms upward, she was rotating sunwise ever so slowly. Illuminated by the light of magic, a sanctified space surrounded her – an invisible chapel walled by high trees, roofed by the starry sky. Her body was a fine white candle, breasts and buttocks – droplets of melting wax, and her hair – a dark flame around her head; her skin glowed except for darkness hiding in the triangular spot between her thighs, but as he took in the vision, he realized it wasn’t darkness at all but rather a different kind of light – the unapproachable light of the Otherworld.

Illustration by Nigel Hendrickson

He had stood naked in front of her countless times, she’d bathed him as a child, and later, performed rites requiring him to be exposed to the elements, yet he had never seen her unclothed. Now, he hardly recognized the woman he knew. He always thought of her as high, towering over him, and ample, with an embrace to sink in. But in front of him was a small woman, so slim he could count the ribs above her narrow waist. Her heavy breasts seemed out of place on her fragile frame; the sight made him think of a brittle apple branch burdened with ripe fruit. Her narrow ribcage was offset by the smooth curves of her hips; her round thighs by sharp knees. Her body seemed impossibly soft and hard at the same time, and it was the image of her essence he so adored.

No longer able to contain himself, he opened up and took in the rocks, the water under and the soil over, the moss, the ferns, the trees, the fog between the trees, all the living creatures in all the hollows and crevices, and the woman at the center of it all. At that moment he knew her, penetrating her being in a way of which the human intercourse was just a pale shadow. The wave of unbearable pleasure knocked his feet from under him, and he collapsed on the forest floor.

‘So this is how it is,’ he thought, choking on sobs, pressing palms against his mouth to keep quiet. Although a distance away, he was inside of her, seeing what she saw, feeling what she felt. The ice-cold, red-hot sword piercing through your chest. The feeling of emptiness when you jump in the lake from a swinging rope. The sweet nausea of being filled to the brim after gulping too much honey. The excruciating hunger for something which belongs within, or you die. It was the same intoxicating clarity he felt when executing a spell, opening his heart to the universe, ordering it to change its properties. Oh, he knew exactly what it was: the elusive yet ever-present true love, the ultimate subject and object of magic. Except this time all its force was pointed at him – blinding as a searchlight in the eyes, undeniable as the fact that he’d been a fool. Her true love was for him!

Suddenly he heard her voice. In the language of the ancients, Caireann was singing something into the physical plane. As the unfamiliar spell unfolded, it began to manifest around her, beautiful and repulsive at the same time: a spider web. The witch was slowly turning in the air, weaving a gleaming web into existence, and she was both weaver and prey caught. Suddenly, a dark ornament appeared on her skin right above her heart, developing like an ink blot through the pounce dust. From his shelter, Yaret strained his eyes: a snake circled around the tip of her left breast, its mouth open, about to swallow its own tail. He recognized the World Serpent of Middangeard, except the familiar image was disturbingly altered. Instead of the serpent’s tail fitting into its mouth both the tail and the head were grasped and spread apart by the legs of a small black spider, as if the spider was breaking into the circle of power, preventing the World Serpent from completing its cycle. As the ornament took shape, Caireann’s body quivered in pain, and Yaret, who felt what she felt, noted that the pain was habitual.

For a moment she stopped in the air, then resumed the rotation widdershins. She started an unbinding spell, and for one heartbeat Yaret was horrified that it was the bond between them she was trying to break. But he was wrong again. With all the power of her true love, with all the force of her desire, Caireann cut at the spider web, striking from the center at each glimmering strand at once. A shockwave rolled across the web, and it rang with a thousand strings. Yaret covered his ears, only to be reminded that the web was resonating on a higher plane of reality – there was no escape from the sound, just like shutting his eyes didn’t clear the net’s imprint from his mind. A dreadful echo reverberated through his body, making him nauseous. Caireann hit again, then once more. The web shook violently but didn’t release her; instead it seemed to grow, sucking into the woman’s veins, draining her life force. She struck three more times, and then three more, all in vain. Yaret saw Caireann convulse in the air as if a thousand strings were a thousand needles piercing her sides.

With the irrational clarity made possible by otherworldly magic, Yaret realized that the spider on her breast bound her to the web in a slave-like bond. Being a vital part of her, the spider made it impossible to tear free, even tapping into the power of true love would not sever the connection. The spider web began to demanifest undamaged. Caireann had failed to effect the spell.

The rotation stopped and her body jerked in the air, as though the heavenly tread she was suspended on was torn abruptly. She dropped her arms, and crashed into the bracken with a pained cry. Yaret had never seen her fail at magic before. His impeccable Caireann, who mocked him for the slightest show of weakness, who could turn any botched exercise into an occasion for learning, had failed.

It was a shock, but in his heart surprise gave way to tenderness, her failure endearing her to him in a yet new, bittersweet way. He wished he could run to her, comfort her, offer help, but by spying on a secret rite he already had committed a unforgivable offence. To dull the ache he curled into a ball, and buried his burning face in the damp moss.

He didn’t know how long he lay on the forest floor. When he got to his feet, the woman was long gone, the stars pale, and the universe irrevocably re-ordered. This was his new reality: Caireann, the pillar of truth, had not been truthful with him. Nevertheless, it was him she loved. There was a mysterious terrible power reaching for her from her past. She tried to use her love for him to fight her enemy and failed. Her love. Her love for him. She loved him. Nothing else mattered.

“In the beginning there was her love, and her love was towards me, and her love was me,” he sang at the fading stars, and laughed at his own sacrilegious recitation, frightened and emboldened at once.

His own feelings he never questioned. Despite his Alvan insight, or perhaps thanks to it, Yaret was not introspective by nature. While he was familiar with a variety of human passions, he himself knew only two: the ecstasy of attachment, and the agony of separation. Harmony was pleasure, discord was pain, so he was either glad or sad, laughed or wept. It was as if the intricately woven fabric of his existence contained only white and black threads.

Since the day Caireann snatched him in her arms, he was bound to her with the dumb devotion of a foundling pup; an invisible tether tugged at his heart at all times. The monochrome yarn of his wyrd became entwined with her brightly colored threads creating an exquisite ornament. More than the harmony of attachment, she brought meaning to his world. Was there anything else to ask for? Suddenly, there was. She had true love for him, and now he wanted it.

While the haunting echo of her past she so desperately tried to silence meant nothing to him, Yaret never doubted Caireann was a dangerous, powerful woman from a long line of dangerous, powerful women. Winning her would be like taking on a grown brown bear – a prize worthy of a great man. But how much of his achievement would there be in such victory? Caireann just happened to find him, and he couldn’t help but accept her love and the life it promised, just like Botulf’s runaway slave had happened upon him by chance, and he couldn’t help but reject his lust and the death it brought. Like paths in the forest, those accidental occurrences had brought him to this place, the place of comfort and happiness which he shared with Caireann. Could there be anyone in her place?

“Such is the wyrd: it is she and no one else,” he said out loud, facing the sky of the new dawn, and a feeling of contentment filled him, as if he’d solved an especially tricky puzzle, or mastered a particularly complicated spell, attaining a communion with the universe in the most intimate way – the only way worth while.

5 Comments »

  1. auxtessa said,

    Офигенно…я под сильным впечатлением.

  2. Olga said,

    “More than the harmony of attachment, she brought meaning to his world”… I love that!

    • Katyok said,

      I’m glad! Poor Yar was never an intellectual, not big on meaning if you get my drift.

  3. Olga said,

    You always underestimate him! Meaning is not only intellectual. Not in his world, anyway. “Irrational clarity”, revealed to the likes of him, does not require intellectual effort, if you get mine (drift that is :-)).

    Give us some more writing! I love your style.


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