For Queen And Country 2. Willow Witch

Continued from book 1

After fleeing from the burning ruins of Saardam, Johanna, Prince Roald, Loesie and Nellie have been captured by a group of bandits and are being taken to a place unknown through a forest rife with magic. Loesie, struck mute by an unknown but powerful sorcerer, is behaving increasingly strange. The friends try to escape, but is Loesie helping them or is she a danger to them?

Every step they take through the ghost-ridden forest brings them closer to the duke who is rumoured to be the source of the evil magic, the necromancer whose anger against Saarland’s royal family has lain the world to waste.

Read a sample below.


     


Chapter 1

THE BANDITS had been arguing all day.
From the back of her big black horse, Johanna could make out only disjointed parts of their conversation, which was slow and drawn-out, because often the forest was so thick that the twenty or so horses had to ride in single file.
She thought the argument involved directions or orders given to the group by some boss or landowner. A few of the bandits wanted to go to a town, while the main group said that their orders were to go elsewhere, to a place called Hunter’s Rest.
None of it meant anything to her. The only town in this area that she was aware of was Florisheim, but she didn’t think they were that far upriver yet. Maybe they were in Gelre, maybe still in Estland, she wasn’t sure.
The bandits’ strong eastern accent didn’t help matters. The only one Johanna could hear clearly enough to mostly understand was her “own” bandit. He was a warm presence behind her on the horse and his beard tickled in her neck. His hands were big, with dirty-nailed, hairy fingers that strayed often or “accidentally” grabbed her in places where a man’s hand had no business being. He would pull her against him so that she could feel the greasy touch of his leather jerkin and would be enveloped in its stench of smoke and sweat.
His name was Ludo, or something similar, and he had a rough voice and shaggy long hair like the two bears that bounded tirelessly between the horses and around the main group. She figured that he argued in favour of following orders and getting paid, but there seemed to be some sort of disagreement about whose orders were the most lucrative and who was most likely to pay.
Sometimes there was a lull in the argument, when one or two of the arguing parties got frustrated and urged their horses to the other side of the group or to the front, out of earshot of the main group. When that happened, the main group went sullen and broody. In these quiet moments, Ludo said soft words to her under his breath. Things like flower of beauty, and who gets to taste the fruit of a maiden’s sin and other suggestive things. Johanna kept trying to shift forward on the rough saddle just as much as he continued trying to sneak his hands to her chest. Because I can’t allow you to fall he’d say, even though the horse moved at walking pace and had a steady and even gait.
Then, fortunately, some of the arguing bandits would come back before anything worse happened. The most important of these was a man called Sylvan, who looked like he was both the fiercest and the youngest in the group. He rode alone on a magnificent horse that was strong and tall with a magnificent glossy black mane and long fetlocks. Sylvan was a scrawny fellow, with an ugly scar across his face from an injury that had just missed his mouth, but had pulled one corner of it permanently upwards. His cheeks, forehead and arms bore tattoos of unfamiliar symbols. His hair was done up in plaits, which swung about his head when he tossed it back as an expression of frustration, which he did a lot. Sometimes he would pull his horse’s reins so that it would rear on its hind legs, and speed off into the forest. For a horse that size, this came with a frightening thunder of hooves that made the regular horses skitter.
Then he would wait by the side of the forest path for the rest of the party to catch up. Usually both bears and one or two of the hounds went with him. The dogs would bark, and someone in the party, usually the bald leader, whose name appeared to be Sigvald, would yell at them to shut up, and he would hurl sharp comments at Sylvan.
Johanna listened and tried to interpret what the men said, and most importantly, where they were going, but she understood only shards of their dialect. The idea of being taken somewhere unfamiliar for money frightened her. Men who did things for money had a reputation of being ruthless. What if they decided to split up the group of prisoners, or kill the most troublesome and worthless of them?
Since starting out, she had been unable to talk to any of the others, not even during the short breaks when the bandits rested their horses.
The bandit who rode before her shared his horse with Roald. Johanna could see only part of the prince’s legs, since the bandit was taller and broader than the prince. Roald had screamed a few times when they were first captured, but had been quiet since. Too quiet, Johanna thought. She worried about what the bandit said to him. A single word might upset him enough to do something unexpected and silly, like screaming uncontrollably or banging his head. Even in Saarland, most folk from outside the towns feared halfwits and didn’t want anything to do with them. There were stories about people living their lives locked in tiny rooms, or being branded witches and killed. The bandits had to know that he wasn’t normal. It wasn’t obvious in his looks, but his behaviour would have informed them soon enough.
Nellie and Loesie were somewhere behind her, but since Loesie couldn’t speak, and Nellie seemed to have gone paralysed with fear, Johanna had no idea how far behind. With the creep and his questing hands at her back, she didn’t want to look over her shoulder and give him the idea that she was curious about him.
So she listened out for Nellie’s voice, but heard nothing except the men’s drawl in their rough eastern dialects and the clop clop clop of horses’ hooves on the ground.
The forest was endless. Johanna could make out no clear path. Sometimes they rode between the massive trunks of beech trees, where it was dark underneath and the ground was covered in dead leaves. The only sunlight that made it down to the forest floor came in thin shafts that penetrated the canopy, or patches of brightness in places where a large tree had fallen. The hazy air made the sunlight show up as brilliant rays of light.
Even animals seemed to have fled this place and its pressing silence. Every breath of wind made leaves rustle. Their lilting and whispering voices formed an eerie background to the arguing from the bandits.
Occasionally they would come to a patch of birch trees that, with their black and white mottled trunks, looked like ghosts. At those places there would be short shrubs on the ground with filaments of spider web between them.
The ground also grew hillier. Sometimes they’d come to the top of a hill and there would be a view between trees, always showing more trees and the occasional patch of bracken. No paths, no sign of habitation.
Yet the bandits seemed to know where they were going. The only thing Johanna could say was southeast, judging by the direction of the sunlight.
Their day-long argument dragged on, and with each confrontation came a sharp exchange of words, a moment of Sylvan’s posturing where he would pull up his horse so that it stood in the way of the others, and Sigvald would shout at him until he moved. Each time Johanna thought that the two would come to a fight.
If that happened, she guessed each of the bandits would take sides. They would watch the fight and it would be a good time to try to escape. She distracted herself from worrying about Ludo’s questing hands by making plans for what she would do. Some of the bags tied to the backs of the five packhorses looked like they contained tents and blankets. They would have to take those horses.
She didn’t know much about horses herself, but Roald could ride, she thought. Nellie could be prodded to do so, but Loesie . . . She had no idea what was going on with Loesie. Coming from a farm, she should be able to ride, but Loesie was not well. Even before they were captured, she had barely tried to communicate for days. Johanna had assumed that was because Loesie’s task had been to look after the ship, but there had been no warmth or any kind of emotion in Loesie’s expression for a long time. Since the burning of Saardam, Johanna thought.
Loesie seemed to have drawn into herself, and Johanna was no longer sure that she listened to what people around her said. If they had the opportunity to escape and had to make a run for it, would Loesie be able to follow simple instructions? What was going on inside her friend’s head?
By the time the light turned golden and Sigvald called the party to a halt, there had been no fight and no opportunity to escape.
The horses stopped, blowing gusts of air out of their nostrils, tossing great black-maned heads. Ears twitched and great eyes roved.
Now that the rear of the group caught up with the front, Johanna could see the others. Roald sat as stiff as he had when Johanna had last seen his face. That was just after they had been captured. The bandits had tied his arms, which caused him a lot of distress. He’d been wailing and Johanna had protested to the bandits that he was little danger to anyone, because he was simple. She wasn’t sure how much of it the bandits understood, but they had untied his arms and let him ride. The last time she met his eyes, she had told him to sit up in the saddle and be proud. To her surprise he was still following that order, although the rawness in her own backside had caused her to slump ages ago.
It made her feel guilty.
The bandit riding with Loesie had used a rope to lash her to the saddle so she didn’t fall off. She sat slumped, her head forward. Johanna thought for a moment that she was asleep, but then she slowly raised her head. Her mouth hung open. Her chin and front of her dress were wet from drool and eyes were unfocused.
Definitely getting worse.
Johanna tried to catch her attention, but she just stared into nothingness. It was as if Loesie had not only lost her voice, but had now also lost the ability to communicate in other ways. She hadn’t been like that when Johanna had met her in the markets. It was as if the spell was still eating away at her.

     

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