The Sorceress of Mhur
First Place, Fresh Ink Group Short Story Contest 2012
We are who we are. We know what we know. Reality is what it is. Brack had always been a level-headed man who didn’t chase fantasies, but fate would test him.
He stood in the castle doorway, quicksand on his boots, an odor of earthen decay filling the room, seeming to come from the bubbling cauldron in the fireplace. The air felt stuffy and oppressive, the shutters closed and locked. Fatigue filled him. He’d labored through eons of forests full of strange growls, branches hung with moss, and swamplands known as the Wormbog Woods, where slithered through the slime unnamable beasts. At last, he’d returned to the strange castle built in a clearing in the woods.
“You’re a beautiful woman, Morinda,” Brack said, his voice echoing off the candle-lit walls, but he avoided the sorceress’s gaze, for in those eyes he saw only death.
Golden bracelets clinking, the Sorceress of Mhur paced over to her lounger, her violet gown trailing the stone floor behind her sandaled feet. Only Morinda’s black hair, bound in a loose braid, covered the open back of her gown. She placed herself upon the lounger, leaning against the arm rest, her full breasts compressing into frightening cleavage.
“I knew you’d return.” She grinned. “You need me.”
Brack’s eyes roved about the room. Skulls lined the castle walls. Had they once been Morinda’s favorites before falling victim to her boredom, or was the graveyard just her preference for home décor? Either way, it didn’t speak well of her.
A tremor passed through Brack’s body, sweating beneath his leather armor, wrecked with mire and blood. “Parting your company has been a difficult journey,” he said, though he fought against Morinda’s charms, considering her duplicity.
In his youth, Brack might have more easily succumbed to Morinda’s devices. But now, over thirty and an experienced fighter, he’d learned the hard way that women of virtue exceed those of deceit—that a noble character surpasses the ornamental shams of temptresses who coerce through spell and potion. And so, he meditated on Avessa, his lawful wife. Lonely, he’d bought her as a slave from the dwarfs of Yurk for companionship. Last in his wishes was to abandon her and become Morinda’s prisoner, plaything, pawn among a harem of masseurs. Yet he knew she desired that. Yes! Avessa, he mused in concentration, teeth clenched, jawbones bulbous.
Brack stood with legs akimbo, his scraggly, black hair smelling of swamp water and falling over his broad shoulders, his worn sword tucked in the scabbard at his belt. “I’ve forded mighty rivers, passed through a thousand fires, been manacled in the deepest dungeons of the earth. I’ve battled unspeakable foes and slain the ogre hoard of the Caverns of Bazlahan, as you bid, and now I come to claim the Helm of Constitution as my token, which you promised.”
But Morinda only laughed. “Stay a while!” She lifted the tip of her braid, placing it to her lips.
“I wish I could,” Brack said, knowing better than to offend her, “but I cannot. I must return to my king in the east.” He tried to keep his thoughts on Avessa, picturing the soft contours of her face and body.
Morinda’s smile wavered, and the braid fell like a snake dropping from a tree limb. “Your king will have to wait.”
I will NOT be your chained monkey! Brack thought, hands fisted, though he could think of no further reply.
Morinda rose from the sofa. “I must escort you to your bedchamber. I’ll send for the slave boys to wait upon you. Tonight will be a time of feasting, for you’re troubled and weary and need re-freshening. I’ll prepare a spiced bath to your satisfaction and see that your clothing is laundered. You must be perfumed and pampered,” she finished, almost in mockery.
Brack’s muscles stiffened at Morinda’s audacity. But, “I’m undeserving of your splendid hospitality,” was his only response. He knew she wouldn’t take no for an answer. He knew he’d have to appease her.
* * *
Brack stood naked in the castle bedchamber, wondering what awaited him. A wild excitement brewed inside of him. He knew he was weakening, his resolve failing. Despite his intentions, Morinda had aroused him, and now, he feared, he’d become just a puppet to her whims. No, he thought. I won’t let her do that to me! But he knew resistance was futile, and denying the inevitable was only lying to himself.
An eerie silence filled the castle. Where were the masseurs? Where were the slave boys? She couldn’t have needed that many innards for spells. Or could she? It seemed that dark mystery had opened wide its famished jaws and swallowed all of life except for just his own, and that had been spared only for Morinda.
Upon the shelf a candle hissed. Brack picked up a strip of fresh linen and toweled off his muscular arms, stubbly face, and hairy chest. In the corner his bath still steamed with warmth, though swamp sludge and soap scum had dirtied the water.
He pulled back the bed covers, releasing a spicy scent, orange blossoms stashed beneath the blankets. Cinnamon and sassafras. Anise and juniper berry. The aromas vacillated through him, making him tingle. He lodged himself beneath the sheets, sinking into the mattress.
A knock sounded at the door. “Come in,” he heard his voice say as if in a dream. No! Avessa, he wanted to think, but it was too late. “Morinda,” he said, and the door opened.
Morinda entered, wearing a crimson robe of satin and carrying a tray of burning incense. Not speaking a word, her lips a mocking half grin, she placed the incense on the wooden table. Pink and green smoke, so aromatic Brack could almost taste it, curled through the air with dizzying intoxication, clouding his mind and swirling his thoughts into deeper desire. His heartbeat rushed, though he fought to stay sober.
Morinda approached the bed, smiling. Her fingers loosened the tie of her robe. She let it slip away and fall to the floor. Seeming almost bashful, she draped her unbound hair over one shoulder, forming a partial covering for her nakedness, dancing with shadows.
She neared the edge of the bed. Brack could smell her intense aroma: safrole, jasmine, and rose. Hardly standing his own excitement, he pulled back the sheets, welcoming Morinda inside the covers. He could do nothing else. He could say nothing else.
Ylang ylang. Tonka bean. Coriander. Myrrh. The incense just kept steaming. Caught in a snare of spice, Brack succumbed to Morinda’s will. He tasted her soft lips. His body entwined with hers, and he soon lost himself to the pleasure.
* * *
Slosh! Slosh! Slosh! Brack sat on a stool in front of the churn, pumping goat’s cream into butter. His hair was shorn; clean potato sack pants clothed him; and Morinda’s apron, hand-sewn with cloth spun from flax by her own fingers, covered his chest and torso. He whistled a merry tune.
The castle seemed so different now, almost like a simple mason’s cottage. The open shutters let in fresh air, light, and music from twittering whippoorwills. Outside the window to his left, sheep and goats frisked about the field spotted with wildflowers—trillium blossoms, red and purple poppies, daisies, buttercups, and foxglove. Bumble bees and butterflies drifted through the warm, scented air. Beyond the fields an apple orchard stretched away to the border of the forest.
Brack stopped churning. An apple orchard? He puzzled with wrinkled brow, marveling again at something else he hadn’t noticed before. Every day his world was changing. Not only that, Morinda had removed the skulls from the castle walls. He didn’t know where she’d stashed or destroyed them, but one day they’d just disappeared!
The kettle in the hearth gently bubbled, but without a foul odor. Instead, aromas of rosemary, mutton, and garden vegetables filled the room, causing his stomach to rumble.
Morinda entered with broom in hand. She placed the broom against the wall and hastened to the hearth to stir the stew with a wooden spoon. Clothed in a modest brown dress, seeming almost virginal, she tucked a lock of dark hair behind one ear then turned toward Brack. “Will we have butter for our bread with tonight’s supper?”
Brack rose from his stool and strode over to the window, casting him in a stream of sunlight. “Come here.” He motioned her forward. Squinting in the sunlight, he gazed outside then back at Morinda, who crossed the room until she stood beside him before the open window: lambs baaing under blue sky.
“What is it?”
“Tell me,” Brack said, pointing, “where did that apple orchard come from? It wasn’t there yesterday.”
Morinda laughed. “It’s been there forever!”
Stupefied, he gazed at her rosy-cheeked face. “I swear, I never noticed it before!”
“No?” She looked at him as if she couldn’t understand his puzzlement.
“Then we shall have bushels of apples!” Brack said, smiling.
“Indeed, we shall.”
“And where is your brood of skulls?” Brack gestured toward the walls.
“I took them down,” she said with gladness in her voice, her dark eyes shining. “I needed a change.” She reached out to smooth a wrinkle in his apron.
“Where are all your masseurs?”
“I told them to go away.”
“What about the slave boys?”
“I set them free!” She smiled at him.
“You set them free!” He repeated her answer as if the truth of it were marvelous.
“You set me free,” she said.
“You set me free, Morinda.”
She laughed. “You keep calling me by the funny name. That must be a woman you once loved.”
Brack looked down, his face burning. “Yes,” he said, lifting again his gaze, “but not anymore. I love only you now. You are my wife. Avessa.”
“At first, I was afraid of you. I didn’t know what you wanted me to be.”
“I wanted to be a hero.”
“We are who we are,” she said. Sunlight cascaded over her, igniting her dark hair with flaming highlights.
Brack fell into her gaze. “I see life in your eyes.”
“I decided not to kill myself—or you. I decided not to poison the soup.”
Brack laughed. “So that’s what you were contemplating. I knew there was something dangerous about you, something I feared. Why didn’t you?”
“I decided I liked you, something about you.”
“I was hoping you’d come to like me,” Brack said.
“Do you like me?” she asked.
“Like you? I love you!”
The breeze stirred the wind chimes dangling in the window, clinking and jingling their simple song of love and peace.
Love and peace.