Power and Price

The price of power

“Merrick, I don’t know about this…” Lachlan muttered as their battered car pulled into the long, tree-lined drive.

“This is the best shot we’ve got.” Merrick glanced over his shoulder at the prone figure taking up the backseat. “He won’t last much longer. He’s dying.”

Lachlan’s face closed up as he forced back his fear and pain. “I know.”

They came out of the shadows of the trees into a bright clearing of lawn and flowers, surrounding an old stone house. The front door flew open and a slight woman, wrapped in a long grey cloak, raced down the few steps towards them.

“Bring him fast,” she ordered. Lachlan barely had time to take in a cloud of dark hair, fierce green eyes and the sharp corners of her face before she’d turned from him and wrenched open the back door of the car. Lachlan swung his own door open and lurched out, his legs numb and unresponsive from the long drive, his heart hammering against his ribs.

Merrick ran around the front of the car, and together they took Gage under the shoulders, easing him out. His face, in the sunlight, was white, underscored by the deep black and purple shadows that surrounded his eyes. His head lolled back, his shirt and jeans were stiff with dried, black blood. So much blood, Lachlan winced at the sight. How could a person lose so much blood and live?

Merrick’s hands locked onto his wrists and they carried Gage quickly up the stairs.

“In here.” The woman’s voice cracked like a whip. She stood in a doorway to one side of the hallway, holding the door open. Merrick and Lachlan carried Gage’s deadweight awkwardly through the narrow hallway and into the room. Lachlan stopped as they crossed the threshold, fresh doubt and fear rising like a tide in his chest.

The room was cool and shadowed, the curtains drawn. A fire flickered in the small stone hearth to the left. Walls and floor were bare of ornamentation, the only furniture a single bed, centred in the middle of the room. Beside it, a low table was covered with bottles and jars, a straight-backed chair standing close by. But … the walls and floor were covered in interlocking circles, drawn out in chalk and other, less obvious substances, filled with lines that seemed to shift and writhe in the uneven light.

“What the … Merrick!” Lachlan’s stride faltered as his gaze swung around. Merrick shook his head, dragging them both to side of the bed. The woman closed the door, striding to stand beside them.

“You’re a witch!” Lachlan released his grip on his friend and turned to face her.

“I am.” She was staring down at Gage. “But my powers come from the Earth, not from any demon or angel.”

Her gaze lifted and she met his eyes steadily. “Your friend will be safe here — if you let me do my work.”

Without waiting for a response, her eyes flicked to Merrick. “There are clean linens and hot water ready in the kitchen. Get them.”

It was both order and dismissal as she turned from the bed, her attention on the low table. Its surface was invisible beneath bottles and jars of powders, unguents, creams and liquids.

“Hurry!” she snapped without looking at either of them.

They ran from the room, Lachlan following Merrick down the narrow hallway, past a staircase and several closed doors to a brightly lit kitchen at the rear of the house.

“Merrick … are you sure about this?” Lachlan’s fear of his friend’s dying warred with his fear of the woman who was attending him. “A witch?”

“Lachlan, I’ll explain everything later. Get those towels and cloths.” Merrick pointed to the stack of clean white cloths on the wide pine table. He reached the stove and carefully lifted the large kettle of steaming water, turning slowly and heading back towards the front room. “We wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t one hundred percent sure, you know that.”

Lachlan nodded reluctantly and gathered the cloths. He followed Merrick back to the room, putting the linens down on the chair next to the bed.

The woman turned to face them both. “Once I’ve closed the circles you cannot enter. This will take the full turning of the Earth to finish. I need your assurance that you will not enter, or attempt to enter this room, until it’s done.” She looked from one to the other. “He’s near the next plane, and it will take everything I have to bring him back now.”

Merrick nodded. “We’ll be outside.”

Lachlan looked at him, more troubled than ever. But he nodded and retreated from the room. As Merrick pulled the door shut, Lachlan saw the woman close the great circle that enclosed the bed and his friend, the lines on the floor seeming to shine with their own silvery light as she spoke indistinctly in a low tone. Then the latch clicked, and he and Merrick stood in the bright sunny hall together.

When the two men had left the room, Marion let out a sigh of relief. She worked fast, closing the circle surrounding the table and the bed holding the injured man. He was slipping fast, and she had a lot of work to do to hold him to this place until flesh and blood could heal.

She murmured the familiar words, her voice low and sounding almost slurred in the oldest Gaelic tongue.

“I call to the Guardian of the North, Lord of Light and Air, heed me now and safeguard this circle with your power.”

The words, the sigils she drew in the corners, were formulaic and soothing, a pattern her subconscious had long ago learned to gather the energies of the atmosphere, of sunlight and moonlight and starlight, of stone and earth beneath her feet, of heat and power of fire, purity and fluid energy of water, and the billion-fold life force of every growing living thing, to the circle she worked in. She worked around the circle, moving widdershins, counter clockwise, as she drew in the energies from each of the corners, and their Elements, and wove them into both protective shield and shining chain of power.

Straightening after the circle was closed and sealed, she went to the bed, a long slender knife drawn from the inner pocket of her dove-grey robe, glinting in her hand. With deft economy, she quickly sliced along the seams of Gage’s clothing, using the hot water and a clean linen cloth to soak the dried, blood-drenched cloth away from the wounds. As she cleaned the wounds, she murmured the spells to hold soul to flesh, to cleanse deeply, to cease the flow of blood and close the blood vessels. Where the energies of the body joined, she drew the sigils of the elements, designed to gather and hold their potencies where they were needed, to direct their energies through the leys of the body. At her side, the pots and jars and bottles of herbal medicines were ready, and as each wound was dealt with, she packed the wounds with the herbs that would heal fast and clean, provide a barrier against any infection, corporeal or spiritual.

All the while she attended the dreadful cuts, breaks and bruises, her mind was focused utterly on the task at hand. Magic demanded the most stringent concentration, the deepest determination and dedication, an absence of emotion and a devotion to the tiniest details, and Marion knew it from the marrow of her bones to the most sensitive ends of her nerves. Her eyes took in the wound patterns, the depths and widths of the cuts, the edges where flesh and bone had been severed, but she recorded those details without thought or speculation, filing the information away for later consideration. As each wound was cleaned and medicated and dressed, the light shining from the lines and sigils of the circles around her grew stronger, until the room was lit brightly in their eldritch glow.

This was the easy part.

As the shadows stilled on the floor and against the wall, Marion stood and quietened her mind, emptying thought and emotion.

Gage lay motionless on the bed, his breathing now steady and deep, his heart beating slowly but strongly. Her eyes, preternaturally sensitive to the energies that flowed between and through solid matter, followed the spider’s web of faint light and energy crisscrossing his flesh, sigil joined to sigil, the energy flowing from one part of his body to another, starting and strengthening the healing process. She stretched fully, easing the ache of tense muscles and strained tendons, and backed stiffly to the chair, sitting upright and motionless. Closing her eyes, her consciousness widening, she let her senses sink deeper and deeper into the man beside her.

There. The broken bone was a bright silver against the deep red of the flesh. With her mind, she reached out and eased the shattered ends of the bone into place, locking them together, wrapping the join in thin layers of warmth, spell and energy. The marrow reached from one side to the other, the outer layers of the bone sealed slowly.

And there. The muscle and nerves had been sliced wide open, nicking the liver beneath. She envisaged the edges of the flesh creeping closer to each other, an incremental and deliberated meshing. The nerves restored, firing their messages, the tiny edges of vein rejoining, blood flowing through again.

She held his hand in her own, drawing the infinite energy from the world through the circles and through her own body, mind and soul, and funnelling it into his. The effort was enormous, and unremitting, but necessary. She was keeping him alive, tied to his flesh, until body and soul could hold out on their own.

“Marion Danann’s her name. And you’ll keep a respectful tongue in yer head and expression on yer face whenever you have to talk to her.”

Lachlan nodded. Gage’s life was in her hands now. He wasn’t quite so stupid as to show his prejudices any more than he had.

“I knew her mother well, a long time ago.” Merrick glanced at Lachlan, one shaggy brow rising. “Your mother did too.”

“What?” Lachlan’s stomach gave a peculiar lurch. His mother had died when he was an infant. Merrick — a few of the old timers — had known her, their occasional recollections only adding to the mystery of her life, instead of dispelling it.

“Hannah was on the outskirts of many worlds, Lachlan,” Merrick said. “Yeah, Marion’s a witch, not the way you think of ’em. She’s got no truck with the devil, and no interest in any god. Not to belabour the point but she’s probably fought as many demons as you have, and her family a lot more.”

The older man took his seat at the kitchen table, cradling a mug of coffee. He looked tired, fatigue ageing him beyond his years. His voice was strong, and steady, and Lachlan, seated on the other side of the table, hands warmed by the mug he held, was at least partly reassured by his certainty.

“Moira, her mother, was also a witch. It’s passed down in the female line in certain families, most Celtic or Gaul families. They draw their power from the earth, the moon, the sun, the stars, the elements. I don’t know much about it, to be honest. The families still around keep their secrets close to their chests.”

“So, they’re Wiccans?” Lachlan dug through tired memory banks for the right term.

“No. Maybe the Wiccan religion came from their practices originally — ” Merrick shrugged, finishing his coffee and setting the cup down. “The families don’t call to any gods, at least not in the same way the Wiccans do. Most of the old practices have been altered. From the little I understood of Moira’s explanations, they draw on the immense energy of the planet — the core, the life, the, uh, ambient power surrounding all of us — they don’t ask for power from any entity.”

He sighed and leaned back in his chair, eyelids dropping shut, his voice softening.

“I saw Moira bring a man back from clinical death twenty five years ago. He’d been dead four hours.”

Lachlan snorted and the older man smiled without opening his eyes.

“Felt the same way at the time,” he agreed in a mild tone. He opened his eyes.

They were distant, Lachlan saw, looking back.

“Moira told me the circles and the spells themselves are just foci … they draw in the energy and she used them to draw that energy through herself … they can bind the soul to the flesh and heal with incredible speed.”

He glanced at Lachlan, the corner of his mouth tugging upward. “I do know there’s absolutely nothing of black magic involved in it. Their power is paid for through their studies and meditations; through their own bodies. It ain’t presto!chango! stuff and it ain’t using any magic but their own. They don’t get strong without years and years of work. And the innate talent.”

Lachlan stared into his cup, wondering if that could be true. The tenet was one he’d been raised on — all power had to be paid for, somehow — but so much of what he’d seen had been for the practitioner’s good, not for anyone else and they’d never counted the cost until it came for them in the night.

A shiver passed through him as he remembered the field.

“Merrick, is it safe here? Those demons weren’t far behind us at Taylor’s Ford.”

A grin split the other man’s face, his eyes crinkling at the corners. He waved a hand in the air. “You didn’t notice how quiet this house is?”

Lachlan shook his head, brow furrowing as he listened. He couldn’t hear anything.

“The house — hell, the whole fifty acres of this place — is protected. Nothing can get in here, not the invisible, the spiritual or the corporeal. One of the reasons I wanted us to come here.”

“What do you mean? Protected?” Lachlan’s gaze twitched around the kitchen, ordinary in the wash of early pale sunshine through the windows, to the wild gardens beyond. “Protected by what? How?”

Merrick shook his head. “You don’t even know how much you don’t know, do you, boy?”

Lachlan scowled. “Feel free to tell me.”

Merrick laughed, getting up from his chair and carrying his cup back to the pot. “Not enough time left for me to do that,” he said, pouring a cup and returning to the table. He sat down with a soft grunt.

“There are seven levels of protection — seven barriers — around this place. They block out every force. The only thing this place can’t truly shut out is an ordinary person, but the spells take care of most of them.”

“What spells?”

“Illusions, fear spells, mostly. Didn’t you feel more anxious and afraid as we turned in?”

“I was already anxious and afraid,” Lachlan reminded him irritably. “I didn’t notice anything else.”

“They keep the criminals and trespassers away. The rest is … well, it’s stronger than my place, let’s put it that way.”

Lachlan looked surprised. “I thought that was the strongest you could get?”

“Yeah, the strongest I could get. But not as powerful as what’s around this house and land. The only way anything could get here is if someone inside let them in.”

Merrick yawned. “Healing Gage is going to take a full twenty four hours. We should get some rest while we can.” He rose from his chair, grimacing as his knees gave a series of crackling pops. “There are a couple of spare bedrooms upstairs. I’m going to grab a nap. Don’t stay down here and worry and fret yourself needlessly. Get some shuteye.”

Lachlan nodded noncommittally and absently watched the old man walk out of the kitchen.

Witches, he thought uneasily. Gage would be unhappy when he found out. He checked that thought, a flicker of a smile twitching his lips. Kind of a moot point that.

Through the day and into the evening, Marion worked steadily from head to ankle, healing, repairing, encouraging blood flow, nerve regeneration, bone regrowth. Exhaustion was beating her, her own energy failing as she saw the closure of the last of the near-fatal wounds, the terrible rending gash that ran from ribcage to pelvis.

Flesh and mind had been a conduit for hours now and there was a distant and unimportant awareness of her increasing fragility to manage and control that energy. Finally, as the flesh of the intestine walls sealed themselves, she allowed her concentration to diffuse, then dissipate, opening her eyes.

The room was still. The brilliant glow of the circle was the only light. The fire had died hours before. The coolness of the air chilled her skin. She pulled her robe more closely about her, and studied the face of the man on the bed. His breathing and heart followed the same cycle, barely perceptible to the eye.

He seemed to have a little more colour in his skin; the dreadful shadows around his eyes seemed a little less deep, less bruised. She was confident he would live now, at least.

She sighed and rubbed her fingers over her face wearily. She had depleted almost every particle of energy from her body and mind, eaten away at nearly all her reserves, but there was still a lot more to do, and the tasks she had to face, with the power of the moon, would be far more taxing.

Moonrise would be in less than an hour, according to her interior clock. The movement of the celestial bodies surrounding the planet were important sources of energy for healing work. They lent their enormous power freely, the ebb and flow infinite, aiding the healer. She could feel their presence or absence in the heavens at any time.

Straightening with care, she filled her lungs three times, drawing deep and expelling the air with a soft gasp. In every part of the art she practised, the old had to be excised completely, cleanliness of an almost obsessive nature prevented the ills she treated from clinging to her, be they physical, mental or emotional.

There would be enough time to bathe, time for food and replenishing tea before she started the next critical phase. Peaceful sleep would certainly help Gage’s body to speed its recovery as well. She leaned over the bed and touched her fingertips to his temple. In her mind’s eye, she could see the swirls of confusion and disillusionment that filled his dreams, shapes that came and went, making little sense. His fears and doubts were now the greatest hindrance to his healing.

Her command, light as a blown kiss, sent the swirls of confusion and fear tumbling out of consciousness. Be at peace, sleep. She let her finger run lightly around the contours of brow and cheek.

What remained was a clean darkness, warm and safe, without distraction or horror. He took a deeper breath, and muscle and tendon and sinew relaxed.

She took a step back then turned, drawing the slender knife from its sheath on her belt to make a ritual doorway from the circle. Stepping through, she reversed the direction of the cut and closed the doorway again, sealing Gage into the continuously flowing circle of life energy. It would feed him and itself until she dispersed it.

As the circle closed, Marion staggered against the room’s doorway, mouth opening as the full extent of her exhaustion hit her like a hammer. She waited until the first nauseating giddiness had passed and then opened the door, leaning on the walls and furniture as she made her way down the hallway to the bright lights visible in the kitchen.

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