Note: Originally submitted for publication elsewhere, May 2001.
Bones scattered across the flagstones as the crone overturned her workbench, clearing a space on the floor. Hurriedly (but with the practice of years) she drew her brush around herself in a broad circle. Thrice she dipped it in the skull, refreshing the black blood on the bristles of golden hair. Under her breath she was chanting in a tongue never spoken by men.
Below her, in the courtyard, she could hear the screaming as the last of her warriors were put to death, and the dull thudding of the ram against the bolted door. Kragoth and his Reavers never took prisoners. With a loud crash, the door to the tower gave way. She had only moments before they found her here in her sanctum. She had to be prepared.
When the circle was complete, she lit the candles, and increased the tempo of her chanting as she began to paint her own body. The light from the candles flickered with an unnatural speed, spattering the cluttered room with staccato beats of yellow. The warm corpse of the servant girl whose blood the crone painted herself with lay discarded near the door.
How quickly the end had come. The seven valleys had been hers, their people her slaves, their sons and daughters her gifts to the dark Gods whom she served. With her Art she had cast down the kings of the valleys and slain all their kin; turned their soldiers to serpents and beasts of the field. And for twice seventeen years, the seven valleys and all within them belonged to the Witch.
And then Kragoth came. She had heard of him and his Reavers, of course. News of the destruction of Mylistoclae had reached her many months ago. But the northern hill tribes hated and feared her, and shunned her lands, and thus she had not received even a whisper of Kragoth's coming before he and his Thousand had burst upon the seven valleys.
There was a hammering at the chamber door. They were here - but she was nearly finished. She shrieked the final words, words of power that tore at her throat as she uttered them, and cast the powder of seventy-seven hearts across the candles. They blazed up with incandescent fury, consumed themselves in an instant, and it was done.
The door splintered, and burst asunder. Naked, painted, she sneered through the ruined doorway. Let them come. They would not touch her.
A moment passed, during which the screams of her servants being butchered and raped sounded strangely soft and removed, as though it were some other castle being sacked. The crone waited.
HE stepped through the door.
Her subjects had welcomed him and his men, having known terror for so long that they could only see their saviors, their rescuers. They were wrong. The Reavers took what they wanted and killed for the pleasure of it. In a matter of days, they had raped and murdered their way across the valleys. At Juspin's Ford, her army made its stand against them. It was rumored that they slew one Reaver for every dozen of their own, and the water ran red with their blood for days.
She had summoned demons to stop them, and though twice a hundred Reavers died, they neither ran from the pit-spawned nightmares nor hesitated to fling themselves against them, spitting their fury and lust for battle. From the battlements, she flung curses at them as they approached, and though many men died screaming, with skins black and swollen or devoured from within by ten thousand maggots, the men next to them only laughed their defiance, and tore down the gate of her castle.
Kragoth kicked aside the remnants of the door, and stepped across the dead servant girl. He eyed the circle of blood warily, his sword in his hand.
A moment passed.
Then Kragoth shrugged, stepped over the circle, and seized her by her hair.
"Wait!" she hissed. "You must never kill me!"
He looked down at her. "Why not?" he asked, pushing the tip of his sword into her navel. His voice was like mail dragged across flagstones.
She grinned, eyes maniacal. "Because to do so brings with it a terrible curse! You have seen my magics. You know my power. Slay me and my death curse will haunt you the rest of your days."
"I do not fear your curses, witch."
"Don't you?" She eyed him. "But my curse will fall not only upon you. He who kills me curses not only himself, but his progeny until the end of time. Kill me, and you and your lineage will all be accursed. Can you face their knowledge that you were the agent of their damnation?"
Kragoth laughed, then, his filed and broken teeth giving him the appearance of a feral animal.
A sudden doubt shivered into the crone's mind.
"Are you impotent, then? Less than a man, that you do not fear my curse?"
Kragoth tightened his grip on her hair, and looked into her wintry eyes.
"No, witch, I have begotten hundreds of my get on hundreds of women, some of them even my wives."
"Then what? Do you not fear your descendants cursing you, reviling you through the ages?"
Kragoth grinned wider, and punched his sword through her belly, and out her spine. The witch gasped.
"No, witch, I do not."
He yanked his sword in several sharp jerks up through her torso, cutting her heart.
"Because I am not going to tell them."
He pulled the sword out, gore dappling his chest.
"And you are already dead."
Kragoth threw the witch's body down, to lie like a gutted fish against the overturned bench. He laughed, spat on her corpse, and returned to the hallway. Doubtless his Reavers had already caught him some toothsome bedwarmer for tonight.
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