Merek tossed in his bunk, dreaming of the day's battle. He had been more cheerful than the others on the morning's march. While most had kept their eyes down, muttering about the mud and the cold, he had been thinking of Arabella, and he'd let his gaze rove the soggy landscape. So he had been the first to see the birds break over the low hills, silent in flight, big as eagles and black as bats, with eyes the orange and red of hellfire. He had shouted the alarm, and loosed the first arrow to meet them. It had flown true, and pierced the throat of the first bird even as orcs sprang from the trees...
He'd done well. But in his dreaming, the bird screamed as it descended, and his own throat echoed the sound, and an answering arrow thudded home in his own heart.
He woke with a start, in a sweat, and pulled on his boots to go walking and shake his head free of the lingering fear of the nightmare. He strolled through the camp, listening to snoring comrades and the wind sighing through the valley. An owl hooted as Merek passed the sentry with a nod. He was several paces beyond the circle of tents before he realized that he was leaving, and even then he didn't stop. He felt at least as curious as he was afraid, and he let his feet pull him onward into the dark.
When he saw the old woman, he stopped. He couldn't have recognized the arrow in her hand--his arrows looked like anyone else's, and it was dark besides. But he knew it all the same, knew it for a certainty, and felt a pressure in his chest in memory of his dream.
The woman smiled with teeth just a little too sharp and long. "Your arrow, boy," she said, running a loving hand over the fletching. Then she spoke a pair of words he did not know, guttural and rough, and he felt his back twitch and shift. She said them again, and he went blind with the sudden pain, as his body contorted and new things moved under his skin. He gasped, without the breath to scream. She spoke the words a third time, and the world went away.
The witch watched the man twist and change. He tumbled to the earth, as leathered wings sprang from his shoulder blades, as muscles bowed his body, as his clothes shredded away from him, as his fingers and toes lengthened into wicked claws. While he changed, she changed. The last strands of her dark hair whitened, and her wrinkled skin thinned a little more.
By the time he stilled, the arrow had disintegrated in her hands. She dusted frail palms against her skirt, and kissed her new creature's knobbed forehead. "And how could I hold a grudge," she murmured, "against a dear pet such as you?"
He woke to himself at odd times, most often with blood already on his tongue and dripping from his fangs. He grew used to watching terror. His old friends and countrymen fled before him as he acted on the wrath of his new master, the witch who had taken him over, body and mind. In the aftermath of each new mission she sent her attention elsewhere, and he'd find himself once more in control, once more cognizant of his surroundings. But always too late.
Until one day, Arabella.
She stood before him, in the nave of a church, stood with tears on her cheeks and stared him down. She wore the black and white of a novice, and her red-gold hair was all but hidden. "I've heard of you," she said quietly.
Somewhere nearby, there were screams and the sound of running feet. Merek didn't dare to look away. He tried to speak, but it came out as only a growl.
Arabella flinched at the noise, but held her ground. "They tell stories. There are always stories, but...but some people say that you are what became of my Merek."
He felt the witch's compulsion, tugging at the back of his mind. He felt her rage, roiling in his belly. And he held Arabella's green gaze, with eyes that he could only guess were the color of hell.
"Merek," she said again. Merek the Brave, she had called him, Merek the Strong, murmuring under moonlight. "If you...if you know where he is, tell him you saw me. My father wanted me to forget him, and to marry. I said I'd take holy orders rather." She smiled faintly, and Merek felt its warmth on his skin like the smile of the sun itself. "Tell him I never will forget."
Then her face bunched into a fresh sob, and she turned and fled. Merek watched her go, and felt his mind retreat again behind the witch's dominance.
After that he tried harder to pay attention, even if he couldn't maintain control. He saw dark things, and did dark things without being able to stop himself. Sometimes he felt like he had to cringe away from it, like he should curl up around his soul lest it shatter and be lost to him forever. And indeed, sometimes he did go away like that, for days at a time, twisted his mind up deep inside himself and went into a type of sleep.
But after a little rest he would think of Arabella, and return to vigilance.
He wasn't the only unwilling thrall in the witch's army. Indeed, it seemed that nearly every creature who served her had been transformed by her own hands. The great birds had been gulls; the shambling dead she had begun to employ would prefer to rest in their ancestral tombs; even a few of the orcs, who had chosen to take the witch's money and fight in her war, had been touched by her special attention, and now they were larger than they should be, stronger, more disciplined and regimented, and their eyes were empty of anything but despair. Their followers looked at them without trust, and did as they were told without even an orc's violent joy.
And he, more often than not, settled the witch’s thorniest problems, and moved at the forefront of her fiercest attacks. He was her most recent acquisition, and her favorite.
Another night, another slim moon, and he flew to land in the courtyard of a castle he and the orcs had taken weeks earlier for the witch. She invited him into the Hall, and had a silver platter laid before him, heaped with meat and exotic fruits. She herself wore scarlet brocade, her white hair bound up in gold. Her hands were withered, and her face more gaunt than when she had first commanded him.
“My dear sweet pet,” she said, and put out her hand. He felt the compulsion to go to her, and she petted his forehead and his cheek. “And how would you like, my sweet, to sit beside me and be my lord?” She smiled with her sharp, white teeth, and ran a gentle hand down the hard muscles of his arm. “I think we both have tired of your servitude.”
Merek growled in assent. Tired he surely was.
“You weren’t much better than a peasant, before I found you. And it’s been a hard road since then, of course. War always is. But now…now that is all over, and finished. Now you shall have foods like you’ve never tasted, and silk and satin for your body and your bed. You can pursue your own enemies, and your own hobbies as you please, and I’ll bring you beautiful and willing young women to ease your loneliness.” The witch leaned back into her cushioned chair and closed her eyes. “I know all about loneliness. There’s just one more little problem we must take care of first.”
He watched her, and gave in to hope. Peace, he thought. Peace and good things to ease his body, to ease his mind.
The door to the Hall opened, and a pair of orcs escorted Arabella in.
She wore a nun’s full habit. Her eyes were shadowed, her face lined with sudden age. She walked upright, proud as ever.
“This sister,” said the witch, “seems to have some grudge against us.”
“It is the common grudge of all our people against their tyrant,” Arabella said, her voice easy and insolent. “I am no special case.”
“Ah.” The witch smiled. “But you are especially irritating about it. And you imagine that you know my gargoyle, I believe.”
Arabella’s green eyes flicked to Merek, but they were as hard as emeralds, cold and unreadable. “Everyone knows him, now. Yes, I knew the man he was. A long time ago.”
“Shouldn’t you like to renew the acquaintance?” Her voice dripped with honey.
“That’s unfortunate,” said the witch. “Because I’m afraid, my dear, you’re about to.” She inclined her head slightly toward Merek, and he felt his legs begin to move.
He paced close to Arabella, compelled but unresisting. She smelled faintly of sweat, of herself. He breathed through grotesquely huge nostrils and remembered. He felt a pressure in his chest once more, as of an arrow thudding home. And the compulsion vanished, even as he prowled close and circled around his old love. Saliva dripped from his fangs, unbidden, but he paused, and breathed in Arabella's scent, and wished that he could touch her. The witch did not seem to notice him.
“It’s a shame you’ve made such a fetish of this,” she said. “A year or two ago, you were the type of young lady I would gladly have offered to my faithful servant, your Merek that was. You could have had such a reunion. Alas, how worry has aged you.”
Arabella smiled in return, in an expression every bit as wolfish as the witch’s. “Not worry,” she said softly. “Work.”
She extended her hands suddenly upward, and pure white light flashed from them, suffusing the room. The castle rumbled, and the witch's birds shrieked above them. The witch screamed, too. "Kill her! Kill her!"
Arabella's voice rose above the cacophony in the measured Latin of a memorized prayer. Merek watched her, almost mesmerized, and when the orcs beside her moved to do the witch's bidding, he struck them, flinging them away to either side. Their bodies crashed, almost in tandem against opposite walls, but even as they tumbled through the air they seemed to grow smaller, and something like light dawned again in their eyes.
The witch cried out again in wordless rage, and launched herself bodily toward chanting Arabella. Merek stepped into her path, took the rake of her sharp nails across his own cheek. He felt his blood rise, and with it a rage that was his own instead of his master's. He opened his mouth to finish her, to break her neck and end her reign.
But he felt Arabella's hand on his crooked back. "No," she said. "Merek, not you."
So he hesitated, watching the witch cower before him.
"Merek," said Arabella again. "Come back to me."
He turned his head to glimpse her face, and the white light that he had seen washed across and into him. A new pain, sudden and searing, wracked his body. He fell once again to the ground, heard the witch howl behind him and saw birds break through the door beyond Arabella. The birds transformed before Merek's eyes, shedding dark feathers in a cloud. White gulls circled through the room, wheeling once, and descended onto the witch's brittle form.
The orcs staggered to their feet and fled, through the open door.
Merek’s skin sloughed from him, as if it fled from Arabella’s conjured light. His wings fell away, and much of his body with them. He rose unsteadily to wrap fingers as soft as a newborn’s around Arabella’s hand as she reached out to touch his human chest.
Her knees buckled, and he pulled her close. New lines, deeper than before, grew between her eyes, creased her cheeks. “Merek,” she said.
He lifted her in his arms, and stepped out of the wreckage of his enchanted body. The witch’s screams stilled behind them, and in a flurry of wings the gulls soared past, out through the broken door. Merek, holding his lady, followed them into the clear, broad night. Arabella shifted against him, and the veil and cap fell back from her hair. It shone white, threaded with red-gold, in the light of the distant stars and slivered moon.
©November, 2015 Brynn MacNab
Brynn MacNab has previously published works in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, and Fantasy Scroll Magazine. This is her first appearance in Swords & Sorcery.