Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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The Sough Witch

by Scott T. Barnes


The Sough Woods had seen many strange things, but perhaps none so strange as King Gunther Meryman the Just sitting on a stiff wooden throne before a line of petitioners, looking for all the world like a trough before a queue of well behaved oxen. The throne was set in a glade beside a pavilion of gold and purple, not two dozen paces from the fetid water of the sough. A cook fire burned on the leeward side, and horses were tethered to a cart nearby. One small, beige tent waited away from the bustle and appeared to be watching with an incredulous tilt. The camp looked a temporary affair, ready to be packed up and swallowed into the forest at a moment's notice.

A physician stood behind the King. He was tall and thin, with arthritic joints and thick, white hair. He wore the woolen tunic allowed his class. He leaned to say, "Your son is approaching. Do you require opium?"

"Beer," King Gunther replied. The legs of his throne had settled into the peat soil so he appeared several inches shorter than the day before. His heavy, golden crown circled one of the wooden rams adorning his throne's shoulders, discarded. "One draught of opium before breakfast is quite enough. I almost giggled when the miller's daughter curtsied and tripped on her hem. A giggle would have impaled her social advancement."

Band handed the King a tankard. Shouts and galloping hooves drew near, the scrape of metal in motion. A raised standard: a golden ram's head on a field of purple.

"A giggle from the King is a serious thing," added the King.

Prince Wain and his retinue burst into the clearing, a dozen knights in shining armor with a dozen valets. They drove off the petitioners with horse and yelp, knocking one unfortunate peasant down and nearly trampling her.

"Parasites!" Prince Wain said as he dismounted. He gave the last petitioner a shove with a foot. "They must think you soft in your illness to brave the Sough Woods for a favor."

He knelt before his father. The pair looked so different they had to be kin: where the King was broad, Wain was lanky; where the King's hair was brown and braided, Wain's was flaming red and cut short; where the King's nose was flat, Wain's had a bump worthy of a tournament brawl. Only in their intense, blue eyes did they resemble each other.

Wain took Gunther's hand. "You look well."

Gunther returned the empty tankard to Band over his shoulder.

"I do not. My own physician is trying to poison me while the tumor grows in my belly like a fetus. I expect it to begin kicking, if not wailing like a babe. The ash trees speak with opium mouths, and I listen with turnip ears."

Wain's mouth tried to move in several directions at once.

"His humors are out of balance," Band offered.

Finally Wain's mouth found a suitable position. "Then father, you must return to the castle where the physician can do his work properly. None of the others healers would even dare venture to the Sough Woods, yet surely several minds are better than one."

"There is nothing at the castle which can repair my humors," King Gunther said with a snort.

"His yellow bile is particularly long," Band said. "And the black is short."

"Father, are you all right?"

"I grow weary," King Gunther said. With that small admission, his cheeks sagged from rosy figs into ashen sacs and he bent forward towards his knees.

Wain gestured, and two menservants helped the King to his feet and half carried him to the pavilion. The walls were rolled up, revealing a bed which occupied nearly the entire space. Every spare inch seemed to be sewn with the golden ram on purple meadows. The servants propped King Gunther upright on large pillows and began down-rolling the fabric walls.

Band returned to his modest tent and checked the stakes securing the walls to the ground. He made sure his dirk was beneath his pillow. He poured himself a cup of beer and drank it in two swallows.

Later Wain called for him. He put his arm around Band in what was not a comradely gesture. "He claims," Wain grimaced as if each word were a bitter seed, "he is in love with the Sough Witch. King Gunther Meryman the Just deserves to die with dignity. Look how the people talk! Witchcraft, demons -- the clergy threatens to refuse him last rights. You must convince him to return to the castle."

"The Sough Witch is a folktale, nothing more. When medicine could not cure him, he looked elsewhere. He has never faced a foe he couldn't vanquish on the battlefield."

"Wain's mother would not agree!" the King called from inside the pavilion.

"But his hearing has not suffered."

Wain ignored this. "Is there no surgery?"

"If I could do more..." Band held up his hands.

"How long?"

"A week, no more."

The King bellowed, "No guards. Not even you, Wain. Only the physician may stay."

Wain said, "I find it strange that he trusts his physician more than his own flesh. I shall post Lord Halford in the woods, not close enough for father to hear. Call and he will come."

The cook fires had died and the cheerful smell of smoke was turning into the dirge of charcoal. Band entered the King's pavilion. A silk banner displaying the coat of arms of the royal house stretched across one wall. On it, the golden ram pranced on fields of purple, but at dusk it looked as though the ram floated on ink.

"Have they gone?" Gunther asked.

"Yes, Sire." Band set his oil lamp beside the bed and busied himself checking the stays on the pavilion so no animals could creep in seeking warmth.

"Tell me," Gunther said.

"My King..."

"You wiped my arse when I was a babe, and you'll no doubt do it again. Speak your mind."

"My Lord, Prince Wain is right. If the clergy refuses last rites..."

"The people will respect King Gunther Meryman the Just's memory," the King said, and a feeble wave dismissed the clergy. "Death brings out the best of every man."

"I have not given up."

"She will come to me, Band."

"I'm talking about your life."

"Damn my life!"

"Your honor then."

"Do you still refuse to believe? Do you refuse the proof of your own eyes?"

"No Sire, I do not trust my memory. You were only a child, and I...I am an old man."

"You were my father's physician, and I was two years from taking the throne. Old enough to know a sorceress."

"You pinched from your own father's opium."

"Physician!"

"If I hadn't begun cutting the tonic with simple gin you would have been unfit for the throne."

"Watch your words, physician."

Band knew he mustn't speak to royalty so, but the words flew from his mouth like bees from a kicked hive. "You nearly became a slave to my tonic. Yes I saw the girl, two and twenty years and experienced beyond your simple fantasies. She was a commoner, beautiful, yes, with wild looks from living in the woods and firm thighs from chasing after her breakfast."

"You are a fool, physician! She made the trees sing in an ash grove like this one. The crickets sang to her moans. It was this grove."

"She is an old crone now, or dead," Band said. "Your memories are but unfulfilled lust. A common fantasy." Band's lungs were a bellows. His eyes roamed the fabric walls, unwilling to meet his lord's gaze.

King Gunther pulled a pillow from under his back, and leaned back. From the corner of his eye, Band felt a smile crease the King's face.

"I knew you believed." Gunther laughed. "I knew you believed!"

"I swear I do not."

"Your eyes betray you. This may be foolish obsession, but I am a dying man. I can have my obsessions. I'm counting on you, Band. Convince my son this is the fantasy of a dying man. If he thinks for one instant the Sough Witch is real, he will drag me back to the castle, if he doesn't run me through on the spot."

The following morning upon exiting his tent, Band saw a most curious thing -- an ivory skinned lady emerging from the King's pavilion. She appeared to be naked but for a cape which billowed even though there was no breeze. She flowed into the copse of ash and vanished among the white giants. She had white hair like the mane of a unicorn...or golden curls, sparkling fire with the sunrise. He blinked and could not remember.

The silver ash leaves rustled like insect wings. Band shivered and pulled his cloak tighter. I'm still dozing, he thought. I saw sunlight and shadow. His feet crunched on the hoarfrost. He did not feel afraid until he realized that he had not checked on his lord even once during the night. He suddenly feared that he had seen Gunther's soul fleeing his body. He ran towards the pavilion, calling. There answered a crashing from the woods, a wild beast galloping.

Then Band pulled up short. Gunther was already outside, sitting bolt upright on his chair like a sapling. An armored knight thundered into the glade astride a black mare. His helm was emblazoned with the crest of Lord Halford, an ally.

"Sire?" Band said, approaching warily. The King's eyes blazed bright as sapphire. "Sire, are you all right?"

Gunther turned his head slowly. "I am better, Band. I believe the tumor has receded." He reached to unbutton his cloak. His arm moved with difficulty, as if it weighed a hundred stone, and he dropped it to his lap. "Go on, touch it."

Band opened the King's tunic.

Lord Halford dismounted and approached. The tumor had grown into a hardened burl, a purple bruise forcing the skin taught as a drum. Band touched it with hesitant finger.

"Yes, milord," Band said, furrowing his brow. "It has improved."

Beside him, Lord Halford gasped.

The following evening after Wain had rousted the petitioners and put the King to bed, he again called for Band. His ears burned red as his flaming hair.

"He swears his witch came to him last night! Your drugs are driving him mad." Wain's hand closed on his sword, his fingers flexing. "You heard his claim of poisoning -- regicide carries stiff penalties on this world and above."

Band dropped prostrate on the ground. He did not throw himself down, but settled with dignity. "Please Sire, it is his cancer that torments him. The opium relieves his pain."

Wain shifted his feet. "It is bad enough we look nothing alike. The people who used to whisper about cuckoldry will now believe I am the spawn of demons."

Unbidden, unwelcome came the memory. The white skinned wild-woman astride Prince Gunther. Band had seen her from behind, a muscular back devoid of fat, nearly a lad's. The Prince's trousers pulled to his knees. How such a memory haunted Gunther's old age! Band had sipped from his own medicine in those days, and the past seemed insubstantial, islands in a white haze. What was real? What was fantasy? The wild woman stood and ran, leaving no doubt as to her sex. She had shot Band a parting look, a leer -- and a glimpse of her breasts.

The hooves startled Band -- so close they nearly trampled him and so rich with the smell of horse. Wain on his mount. "You will cease ministering any more opium. Keep the fire burning throughout the night," the prince instructed from astride his white stallion. "I shall return early."

Band returned to his modest tent, sealed the flap and lit an oil lamp. The rotting smell of the sough had ceased to bother him days ago. He opened his precious medical book at random. Bloodlettings had not worked. His plant lore was exhausted. He stared at the diagram of a urine wheel. At least Wain loves his father, he thought. We both try to protect him in our own way.

The forest sang with night birds and insect chirps, the crackle of the fire, the rustle of ash leaves and footfalls in grass. They were soothing sounds, sounds to snuggle in one's blankets. Band sighed. The book fell onto his lap.

The flap opened in a rush, light sprang into his tent. "Band! Are you drunk?"

Band started awake. "Wain? I have barely fallen asleep."

"It is evening."

"Of course it is evening," Band replied. "I thought you had gone home."

Wain grabbed Band by the hair and dragged him from the bed. He threw him face first into the grass. "You have slept through the day." Band struggled to his knees, but Wain booted him down. The pain to his kidney was sharp. "You let the fire die, old man," Wain said. "You left my father alone through a night and day."

The grass was dry -- late afternoon. Band closed his eyes and heard a sword leaving its scabbard, slicing the air in a whoosh, but the blade stopped against his throat. A hard pull and his head would be severed.

"If you were a soldier I would kill you," Wain said.

There was a long pause. Band swallowed like a frog croaking.

"Wain, what are you doing?" Gunther called. "Stop playing. Bring the physician here."

Band tried to stand, but the sword bit his neck...then Wain withdrew it with a curse and Band wobbled to his feet. His knee wished to buckle but he denied it and limped as fast as he could to his lord, who was again seated outside his tent.

"Touch it, Band." Gunther drew aside his tunic. He chuckled in glee. "I am nearly cured."

Band placed his fingertips over the lump. It appeared to have grown lips and a nose, a face to burst from Gunther's belly. Band jerked his hand away. He looked at his King in dismay.

"The Sough Witch has promised me life! Did you not see her? She is beautiful."

Wain approached with two knights. "Father, be silent. You are raving!" They reached for Gunther from either side, but could not lift him. He had buried his feet to the ankles.

"I cannot abide my shoes," the King said, following Band's stare. "When I return to Meryman Castle, I shall require all knights to go barefoot." With a heave, Wain and his men yanked Gunther from the earth. Band followed the King, trying to clean the clods from between his toes.

"Forget that," Wain ordered. He and the knights put Gunther into bed. They arranged pillows under him so he would be sitting up.

"You will not punish the physician," Gunther said. "He is under my protection, do you understand? I am still King."

Band helped pull down the walls of the pavilion. "Band," the King said, before the last flap fell. "The Sough Witch is asking for you."

Once the pavilion was secure, Wain said, "This has gone too far." He scratched furiously behind his neck. "My father is raving mad. Why couldn't he have died quickly?" He looked at Band. "We shall close the road to petitioners. No one should see him like this. The King needs be alone."

As the prince mounted his horse, Band stumbled forward and grabbed Wain's arm. "Learn your place, physician," Wain said. "I am not a patient you can fondle."

"Wait, sire. Do not leave me alone. I am afraid."

Wain kicked himself free. "Lord Halford will remain with you, with instructions not to sleep until I return. The King has ordered you not be punished, I am considering that."

"Yes, milord."

"I will not stay myself. The people talk enough as it is." He started to boot his stallion, then hesitated. "Do not think I am afraid, old man. I will bring these woods down with ax and fire if I must."

The crescent moon had risen. Band carried his oil lamp and flask to the King's tent. Lord Halford stopped him.

Band searched the man's round, honest face. "The King must sleep," he said.

"Prince Wain said the opium fuels his madness."

"King Gunther trusted me with his health before the madness -- I must do what I can."

Lord Halford held Band's eyes, then nodded and opened the flap. The King had thrown the blankets to his waist. His chin bobbed with snores. Band touched his shoulder, and he snorted.

"Who comes in stealth?" the King said, opening one eye.

"You must drink." Band put his vial of opium to Gunther's lips, the King pushed him away.

"Do not drug me, physician. I am here for the White Lady."

"Sire, you must drink!"

"My King!" Lord Halford hissed. "I beg you, do not speak her name."

"The Sough Witch, the White Lady." King Gunther giggled. "That is our name for her."

"Hold him," Band ordered.

The knight seized his lord's shoulders. As Band brought the flask forward, Gunther thrashed about and locked his jaws. Band pinched Gunther's cheeks into his mouth as one might to make a war dog release a prisoner. Blood trickled from Gunther's lips and he bellowed. Band shoved the flask inside, breaking a tooth, and he poured until it was empty. Gunther exploded in a fit of coughing.

Lord Halford sagged to the floor. "I have poisoned the King."

"You poisoned no one," Band hissed. "You administered sleep. He will remember nothing."

"Regicide," the King said, his tongue slurring.

"Regicide," Lord Halford repeated.

"You did what needed doing," Band said. "Gunther's mind will not welcome the Sough Witch when it is already in the embrace of opium."

Band returned to his tent. Lord Halford's metal shod footsteps clanked to and fro on the ground outside, occasionally stamping to relieve the cold. With trembling hands, Band poured a flask of opium into his cup and brought it to his lips. He snaked his tongue out to taste, then held the flask at arm's length and poured it onto the floor. "Oh no, vile creature," he said, trembling. "You are the Sough Witch of physicians, I will not succumb to your treacherous thighs."

He changed into his night clothes, marveling as he sometimes did that a peasant could rise to have a separate suit for sleeping, and climbed into bed. Only in the kingdom of Meryman the Just. He left his lamp burning. The owls hooted and the ash leaves cackled. Band did not close his eyes. He had only been listening a minute when the sounds changed, though at first he did not know what had changed. Band picked up his lamp and undid his tent flap. "Lord Halford!" he called. "Lord Halford, wake up."

The lamp shed a bobbing circle of light, a bright spider crawling through the night. The fire was abandoned. Band circled the King's pavilion. With each turn, Band's imagination leaped further, until he was convinced he would find Halford's mangled corpse, but he did not see him. Finally, Band undid the flap to the King's pavilion and went inside.

The witch was not naked, but her robe was a transparent weave showing her muscular back, just as he remembered it. Her snowflake hair cascaded forward, hiding her face as she bent over King Gunther. Her knees rested on the bed and her rear faced Band, curvaceous, inviting.

She turned her head, dark eyes behind a waterfall. Her breath steamed. "What have you given him?"

"Opium," Band replied. "For his pain." His legs refused to run, though his mind screamed for it. "Do not hurt him."

She pointed a long finger at Band as some kind of promise. Her mouth opened and the very air rippled. Her scream seemed to come from the particles of the earth, flowing through Band like a tidal wave from toenails to eyebrow. His hair stood. The scream was not deafening; his ears did not hear so much as feel its weight and his eyesight blurred as the lens folded. Band's lungs could not expand in his tightened chest. Then it was gone and Lady flowed like a snake under the tent wall.

Band ducked out and followed her into the sough.

She flowed around trees and across fetid pools until Band was no longer sure he was following a woman at all but rather some sort of wave which navigated as surf navigates a reef. A flying carpet. A cloud. The flashes of leg became less clear as the White Lady pulled ahead. Band had not run in several decades and his breath lagged behind his body until he pulled up short. He was surrounded by stink and water. A narrow causeway meandered forward. Life: spiders, insects, reptiles, plants and trees were everywhere.

His adrenalin expired and he grew afraid. He wanted to shout for Lord Halford but that would only bring the beasts down upon him. Besides, Halford was surely dead. Surely.

Behind the ash ahead was a glow. He sensed that he had nearly reached his destination. The White Lady must there, waiting. She wanted him to follow, and he did.

The light grew more intense until it illuminated the underside of the tree canopy. He moved into a living cathedral where even starlight was blocked by limb and leaf. Of a sudden, the forest was listening. He did not know how he knew, but he knew. The very moss opened its ears. His life, he knew, hung by a thread. He stopped treading and listened to his heart in his ears.

"What do you want with him?" Band asked finally to break the silence.

A soft hand lay on his shoulder from behind. He started but did not turn. Heat radiated through that hand as the sun scorches the desert. Band trembled.

"He says you love him," he managed to say.

Hot breath tickled his ear where her lips moved. "What do you know of this?"

Of what? Of her and the King? Of love itself? "I know..." he faltered. What did he know really? A bachelor, he had never known a woman's love beyond boyhood fumbling. He tried to recall the most intense emotions of his life. "I have held the hand of many a dying man and woman," the physician said. "I have comforted them. Sometimes I have saved them."

She shimmered in front of him, her legs with perfect calf picking up and dropping like a spider's. Delicate. Deadly. Her head moved separately from her limbs and her dark eyes focused on his, intense. He wanted those lips to smile, would do anything for it.

"I love my King as dearly as any man can," Band said. "I do not want him to suffer."

"It is enough," she said.

She promised nothing.

Band watched the curve of her back and her legs lift and fall, lift and fall, knees bending a little too high as she departed. He watched between her legs too, to his shame, but the glow was brightest there and he distinguished nothing clearly. He wanted to see her face again, wanted to see her leer, but her face remained hidden by her expansive hair. She had nearly reached the edge of the dell when Band shouted out, "Forgive them Lady -- they love the King as I do. They love him!"

Then she moved beyond sight. He waited until he was sure she would not return, then followed the white footfalls back to Meryman's tent.

The King was breathing again, barely.

"What did she promise you?" Band asked

The King smiled. "Another thousand years."

Band held his lord's hand. "Truly sire, I do not blame you. I will take you there, tomorrow."

The next morning Wain and his retinue rode in at daybreak. He dismounted easily, for he wore no armor, only shirt and doublet. He hobbled his horse behind the royal tent and walked to the fire. The other knights and pages followed; one kicked the embers.

"Halford, Halford call out in your modesty," Wain called. "We all use the bushes."

Band crept from his hiding place behind a waxberry bush. He did not want Wain's horse, that wild stallion. He searched for the one with the kindest eyes, for Band was not a strong rider. A piebald mare nuzzled him from behind, as if asking to be chosen. He un-hobbled it and led it into the woods. The other horses sniggered nervously but the mare was a rock.

"Halford!" Wain shouted now. "If the fool has fallen asleep I will have him flogged."

"Sire!" a page called.

Lord Halford lay half in and half out of Band's tent where Band had left him. A physician has many potions with which to drug a man's mead. Halford's helm had rolled some distance away. His face held no expression at all.

"Father!" Wain ran to the pavilion entrance, struggled to open it until he grew frustrated and sheared the fabric with his blade.

"Gone!" He stormed back out.

Band lashed the two stays onto the mare's saddle horn -- long leather straps which trailed to the sled he had made from branches and blankets. Gunther lay on it.

Then the corpse of Lord Halford let out a gasp. He blinked several times. Wain and the knights gathered round, astonished.

"The dreams, beautiful dreams," Lord Halford said.

"You slept through the night, fool, and my father has disappeared."

Lord Halford's mouth curned into a frown. "It was the witch. The White Lady."

Wain slapped the unfortunate lord.

"The opium!" Halford shouted. He sat up and stared wildly in several directions at once. Band made the mistake of staring. Halford must have felt it for he pointed right at him. "The physician, he made me do it! Band!"

The knights turned.

Band kicked the mare into a gallop.

The search for Band turned up nothing; it was as if the piebald had grown wings and flown over the waters of the sough. Lord Halford was hauled away. Wain ordered the knights to town. They returned with axes and fire and peasants. The fear which had fermented over the years, the troubles blamed on sorcery: miscarriages and deformities, broken vows, disease and war and all else a merciful God would not have tolerated poured out in fire and iron. The mob attacked the copse of ash, chopping it to the ground, then they assaulted the larger woods. They piled the logs one across the other and burned them. The fire dodged among the grass and leapt into the lower branches. It ran to the sough and, not finding what it liked, turned back to devour fields of wheat and burn the peasant village.

"Sorcery!" They cried, and burned higher and chopped more. Their anger was a bellows stoking the flames.

Band witnessed none of this. He stopped once more in the cathedral of branches, dismounted, and released the sled from the horse. He hobbled the mare well, for he was no fool. He prayed that the White Lady would not take revenge, for the people's anger was driven by love. A righteous anger, though an unworthy direction.

"Are they attacking the woods?" Gunther asked in a wheeze. He could not even lift his head.

"What else can they do?"

"You will tell the White Lady to be easy on them?" the King asked.

"Tell her yourself," Band said.

The King coughed. "That is not my bargain, it seems. Mine is to be a static relationship."

There was, in fact, an elm sprouting from his chest. His ribs appeared as roots burrowing into his back.

"Perhaps she will pollinate me," the King said. He grinned. He died soon after, his lips still turned up in the corners. It was fitting that King Meryman die with a jest.

Band did not close the King's eyes right away, for there was so much life in them he wished to absorb some. But finally he did close them and rose to his feet. The piebald mare looked at him with a question and he patted its flank.

"Graze on the generous clover," he said, "I will bury our King. Then I will see if the Sough Witch has need for another patient. I have played physician long enough"

THE END


© 2008 Scott T. Barnes

Bio: Scott T. Barnesís short fiction has appeared in Bewildering Stories, Reflections Edge, Midnight Times, The Lamp-Post, Literary Journal of the C.S. Lewis Society, Rose and Thorn, Trail of Indiscretion, Static Movement, Niteblade, and the 2008 San Diego Writerís Ink Anthology. He also edits the webzine New Myths. Mr. Barnes's tale of crime and punishment on the border between our world and Faerie, The Fey Prison Warden, appeared in the October 2008 edition of Aphelion.

E-mail: Scott T. Barnes

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