The Crusader and the Crone
A while back I wrote the first draft of this as a response to the following writing prompt on reddit.com. It’s presented here, edited and updated for my own storage and, hopefully, your reading pleasure.
Ser Galen’s eyes narrowed at the shriek, though he struggled to remain outwardly calm. He could not ignore an innocent in peril, but neither could he afford to lower his guard on their account. He had been a witch-hunter for years, and this would not be the first trap he’d been led into by his own compassion. Nor the last, he thought grimly, spurring his mount toward the sound.
It was late. The witching hour, it was called – the time just before midnight when the barrier between the world and the next was thinnest. The ideal time to strike back at a pursuer, or lash out at a victim. It was possible that the cry for help was issued from someone with a perfectly innocent reason to be here on the moor in the dead of night – but unlikely. Especially now, as he followed close on the trail of Amaranthin, a cunning and exceedingly dangerous witch. This was unlikely to be anything other than one of her ploys – but the faithful know that prudence is a poor substitute for justice.
“Hail, the desperate!” Galen shouted into the darkness, quickly checking the wards on his shield. “Are you in need of aid?”
“Yes!” Not the voice of a young woman – perhaps just old enough to be a grandmother. “Help me, please! My daughter, she’s not breathing!” He suddenly saw her come running headlong toward the light of his lantern, silhouette plain against the starlit brambles. “How far?” Galen asked, gently urging his steed forward. “Across the brook, milord, about a league. Please, she needs a priest!”
“Direct me, then,” he instructed, making the sign of the cross and throwing salt across his shoulder. “Ride with me. I would not separate a woman of God from her imperiled kin.” The woman ran to the horse and mounted up behind him with an ease that bespoke years of practiced horsemanship. Unusual, but not impossible – and the wards on his saddle were designed to ensure that any witch who tried to mount his horse would be greeted with unimaginable agony. “Forward here, ser, and turn to the left as you cross the brook!” she commanded confidently. Here tone was even more unusual than her equestrianism. Curt, sharp, and authoritative – unheard of for a peasant addressing a knight. And was it pain that cut short her breaths, or merely worry? Curious.
They soon came upon the girl laying unconscious against a tree. Her mother leapt off immediately and cradled her, pulling one of the girl’s limp hands up to brush her face. She has knowledge of medicine, Galen realized. “Does her blood yet flow?” he asked, watching closely for her reaction. “Yes, her heart is beating, milord. Please, we need to bring her to a church! She may yet confess her sins and enter God’s kingdom in a state of grace.”
This was a trap, but not for me, Galen mused. Though fell creatures could never enter hallowed ground unbidden, they could try anything to gain an invitation. “She doesn’t need a priest, mother.” What am I doing? he wondered, but continued: “She needs her blood let, and tea made of willow. She’s been bitten by a snake, don’t you see how her hands tremble? Her blood will curdle and rot if we are not quick to push it from her.” Of course, he suspected, she knew this already. Like as not she had been the one to hold the snake. Many of his peers would already have put the both of them to the sword in the same situation.
“Ser knight, she’s been here cavorting with the Devil himself. Small wonder if she’s been bitten by a serpent. I would not want her to live in sin any more than to die in it, do you understand? Take us to a church at once!” She threw her arms about in a commanding gesture, but the fiction of the damsel in distress was gone. Galen felt his eyelids droop and his thoughts waver, a haze descending on him as though he were reaching the end of a long march through thick fog. Yes, a church – she should die in a church, he thought slowly.But soon his resolve caught up with him, and he shook the spell away.
Galen hastily threw a circle of salt around the girl and pushed the witch out, compelling her to remain outside its bounds. “Do you think you have authority over death, woman? Has all of your wickedness driven from you the memory of compassion?” She spat at this, but he continued. “Until the moment of death, all of God’s creatures may find redemption. Even this girl. Even you. Please do not make me end your life, and hers, tonight, when they can both be saved.” Scratching crucifixes into the circle, he set about the task of saving a life. Amaranthin watched briefly, her face a mixture of fury and amusement, before vanishing into the night. And so with the death of another she has again bought her own life, he thought absently as he sought for the adder’s bite.
Two grotesque punctures about the girl’s left breast marked the poison’s unmistakable entry. Quickly, he set to the bloodletting. An initiation ritual. He had seen these marks before, two neat scars on the corpse of every witch he had slain. And the next step, the profane resurrection on an altar of our Lord. Good that I did not bring her to a church. Grimly, wordlessly, he pushed the tainted blood from her wound.
He was there for some time, intent enough that he did not see the witch return. She placed a small clay cup at the boundary of the circle, the bitter scent of willow tea wafting over. Her expression neutral now, she quietly asked “Do you truly believe she can be saved?”
“Her wounds are not fatal. She may yet live through the night.”
“Stubborn as ever, I see. No, that’s not what I meant.” She looked away, pensive. “How long have you been chasing after me now?”
“Nine-hundred and sixty-two days,” Galen replied, not looking up. “Though if you count the days I spent as page to Ser Thalus, God rest his soul, the total is increased by eight hundred and twelve.”
She smiled at that. “That was a long time ago, now. He was never as careful as you are, Galen. Nor so concerned with the lives of blasphemers.”
“All are rendered equal before the Lord,” he recited in a monotone. “We shall not turn away those in need until they have turned away from our Lord God.”
“And do you think, even now, that she has not turned? That I have not turned? Would you stoop over even me, to push poison from my veins?”
“My lady,” Galen exhaled, the bloodletting complete. Cautiously extending one hand from the circle and picking up the tea, he addressed Amaranthin directly. “It saddens me that you do not understand that is precisely what I am doing now. The girl has been poisoned by a creature of Earth, but you have been poisoned by a creature of Hell. It is not too late for either of you to be purged of venom. All children of God are given the opportunity to repent until they are dead, even a mistress of the Adversary. My mission is only to ensure that you meet with one outcome or the other.”
Slow, ragged breaths were coming more strongly now from the girl. Looking back to her, he poured the tea across her lips, taking care she would not choke on it. He kept his gaze fixed downward as the witch replied, her voice incredulous.
“You would offer even me the mercy of repentance, after all that I’ve done? You think that even I have salvation to find in the arms of God? Oh, Galen.” She sighed, both of them quiet for a while. “How is it that you can be at once so discerning and yet so naive?”
They both remained in silence a while while life slowly returned to the poisoned girl, her breath returning in coughs and spasms. He hardly noticed that the witch had fled, but when he looked up she was gone. As he waited for life to slowly return to her would-be apprentice, he spoke half to himself, half to Amaranthin, half to God.
“It is in the nature of sin that it is temporary, but death is permanent. As long as a person shall draw breath, the Lord will not turn them away. He will not forsake you.” More softly he added, “I will not forsake you.”
“I daresay you will not,” Amarthin said, her voice suddenly close, whispering into Galen’s ear. In one motion he stood up, shield raised and sword drawn, but she was long gone.