The Cities Eternal: Winchester Witch
The Days of Revelation had brought an end to the way the world was. The sweeping roar of magic, which itself had ushered in the return of spirits to the world, had washed away the modern age as it seeped through the cracks of time to alter the past itself. To most, this had been the end of things, but as the dust settled it became clear to some that with the end came a new beginning. Across the globe, a new generation, seemingly born of this new world, was venturing out in exploration and discovery.
One such brave spirit was a girl named Tegwen. She was from Sussex.
Tegwen trudged on tired feet through the forests of southern Hampshire. Two years ago, this area had been cleared for a motorway that brought thousands of people in and out of nearby Winchester. Now it was forest, free of even a footpath to follow. Tegwen had only vague recollections of the motorway, or indeed of Winchester in general. Now her mind was more preoccupied with simpler things, like fungus for example.
Tegwen stooped on the moist earth at the base of an old tree trunk. A simple observation would say that the tree itself was perhaps seventy years old, its trunk richly covered in mosses and lichens, and a bounty of mushrooms growing at its base. To a lay person, the tree would be less than a year old but, as many who took it upon themselves to study were discovering, the human perception of time was becoming less and less meaningful. It didn’t matter to Tegwen much at all, and it took a great deal to surprise her these days.
She pulled a sketchpad and some charcoal from the leather satchel she carried slung over her shoulder, lifting her broad-brimmed hat to get a better view of the light as she began to make a careful illustration of the mushrooms. When she wasn’t lightly shading in her lines she was taking copious notes in the margins, noting size, scale, color, and other characteristics that intrigued her.
Finishing her brief but accurate illustration, she decided to begin testing. Lightly she prodded the mushroom with the tip of the charcoal pen, watched it wobble as a faint cloud of blue smoke lifted from the cap. Rapidly she made a few more notes before drawing a small knife from a strap on her leg and cutting a few of the caps off and storing them in another smaller bag on her belt before taking a few samples of the lichen for good measure.
Standing back up, Tegwen flipped through her past drawings: a wide variety of fungi, plants, animals, and the odd mineral of interest she had crossed paths with. Most of them would not have looked out of place in the journal of an antiquated naturalist. Others, however, were decidedly stranger.
The eccentricity of her illustrations were reflected in Tegwen’s own appearance. She was wrapped in a long traveling cloak, the hem caked with mud from a thousand forded streams and rain-soaked basins. She had knee-high boots well-worn from roads both old and newly-forged. Her chest was covered in several layers of padded leather that bore the scratch and scuff marks of angry animals and bad tumbles. Around her waist, she carried nearly a dozen pouches and bags filled with fungi, plant clippings, soil, rocks, and glass; over her shoulder was slung a satchel that carried her supplies and instruments. In her hand was an old gnarled walking stick that was thoroughly mundane, but the most notable feature of her dress was the tall conical, broad-brimmed hat known throughout the post-Days era simply as a ‘witch hat’.
Tegwen would not be so bold as to call herself a witch, even if she looked the part. She did not brew potions or chant or dance on the solstice (well she had once but that was at a party where it was expected). If she had to describe herself in a word it would have been “Naturalist”.
In an era of spirits, daemons, monsters, and magic, the normal conventions of modern biology had more or less had their day. Many simply abandoned science, embracing the oddities and ritual of pure mysticism. Others clung to it, making sense of the new order and, in some more dangerous cases, harnessing it. Tegwen had chosen an altogether unique compromise, a back-to-basics approach that started at the small scale. If modern science could not provide explanation, then one needed to start over from the ground up.
That, as it turned out, required a lot of legwork and mushroom drawing.
A Naturalist in centuries past was a spirit of particular boldness gripped with enough wanderlust and curiosity to brave the great unknown and record and collect their findings. The discoveries made and the records kept became the basis for modern scientific fields, but now that foundation was obsolete, and it would take a naturalist to rebuild them.
To most, of course, this undertaking was more than a little insane. After all, the forests were filled with monsters now, who in their right mind would go out willingly into the dark unknown, with no patron or map to guide them?
That person was Tegwen, though whether or not she was in her right mind was still the subject of some debate.
“Interesting…” She said aloud to herself. The work of a naturalist was solitary and she often spoke to herself just to hear another voice. “This genus is recorded in the area…but the properties are all wrong. Morphology and physiology no longer bound necessarily…outside interference or evidence of rapid evolution?”
Her attention was drawn from her notes by a light dancing before her. Seeming to hang in midair, a bouncing ball of light waved and shimmered. Looking more closely, Tegwen could see the humanoid shape within, watching her curiously.
“Ooooh…” Tegwen said quietly. “Hello, little pixie.”
The pixie (if indeed that’s what it was) seemed surprised at the greeting, and darted off among the trees.
“Wait hold on!” Tegwen shouted after it, stuffing her notes in her bag and giving chase. “Let me interview you! Get a sketch at least!”
The pixie, however, seemed more concerned with fleeing the odd naturalist as it zipped away among the trees, whizzing over a small stream and under fallen logs as Tegwen gave chase, breathing heavily as she ducked and leaped in pursuit.
The pixie led her through the woods, well past her intended trail. Tegwen didn’t particularly mind, the best discoveries were always made off the beaten trail, she’d always said. The chase continued until the trees began to thin, eventually parting entirely into an open field cut through by a small river at the forest’s edge. The pixie sped out into the open before shooting skyward, swiftly vanishing into the blue sky and the bright light of the midday sun.
Tegwen stamped her foot on the ground in frustration. Another opportunity gone. She put her hands on her hips, taking long breaths as the effort of the chase caught up with her. She didn’t have the pixie and at the moment wasn’t entirely sure where she was.
The sound of a long blowing horn caught her attention again. Looking out into the field, Tegwen could see crowds of people beginning to rally across the river. She ducked behind a tree, not sure what was happening and not convinced she wanted to be a part of it, a feeling only assured when she took a longer look at the assembling people.
Downstream from her, where the field fell into a small valley, a group of about a hundred or more armored men and women got into formation. Even from where she was hidden, Tegwen could see the light reflecting off of their shields and the tips of their lances. They moved with precision, and behind them a line of footsoldiers got into place, moving with drilled efficiency.
Closer to her, upstream of the armored warriors, a looser crowd emerged from the forest on the opposite side of the river. This group lacked the formations and the precision, but they had quite a few more in numbers, most armed with shields of hide and axes, a few with nothing more than staffs. Among them, Tegwen could not help but notice, large animals moved, wolves and massive birds with unusual plumage, animal spirits she had no doubt.
It did not take another blasting of the horn or the synchronized roar of charging horse hooves for Tegwen to realize what was happening. The mounted warriors charged in a line, spears lowered. The wilder warriors packed together at the front, forming a loose shield wall to try and slow the charge as the rest braced themselves.
From behind the charging cavalry line, a torrent of arrows arced above their heads, flying well in advance of the charge to pepper the forward ranks of the wild army. The front line faltered, rushing to fill gaps and pull wounded back, but their time was already out. The line of knights, and truly, they did look like medieval knights from the armored helms to the billowing surcoats, slammed into the forward line of the wild army and shattered it like waves breaching a wall of sand.
Tegwen put a hand over her mouth, wincing and looking away as the armored knights cut through the forward ranks, the footmen behind them rushing after to fortify the charge. But she could not help but glance back to the battle. The wild army was wounded but not defeated, their animal spirits rushing the charge as several of the staff-carrying warriors began unleashing waves of magic on the armored knights. Tegwen watched in stunned awe and horror as sheets of fire rolled over several of them, and the earth buckled under others.
As the footmen joined and the battle descended into melee, it was clear the knights were targeting these magic-wielding warriors, as several were hurriedly killed by rushing spearmen after their first spell.
Though numbers allowed them to hold ground after the first charge, it was clear discipline would win the day. As the cavalry pulled back and the armored footmen formed a wall of spears, the wild army found itself unable to make a dent, the cavalry changing course to harass their wide flanks. Before long, their resolve was broken entirely, and the wild army flew back towards the woods in retreat. Several of them rushed to the river from the opposite bank, but none of them made it so far as a few steps in the water before arrows or charging horsemen brought them down, and Tegwen was sure to keep herself as hidden as she could.
The battle was over within an hour. Neither army was particularly large, hardly more than a hundred on both side, and the wild army had shattered before even a third of their men were killed or captured. Soon the knights and footmen were gathered and cheering their victory, banners displaying a crimson dragon flying high as they began to return to their camps, carts already on their way to retrieve the dead and wounded.
Tegwen decided it was time to make her leave, before a scout found her or the scent of death and battle began to waft over the river. Already she could hear the crows chattering as they gathered at the edges of the killing field.
Still, Tegwen would not call herself surprised, Medieval weapons and armor had proven quite effective against the world around them, modern age weapons, if they could still be found, had more limited utility, and thus it made sense that war had become similarly retrograde.
Soon she found a road, an actual road worn down by horses and carts and marked by low walls of stone and the occasional signpost, rather than a glorified game trail. Earning a bit of rest for her feet, Tegwen was happy to walk for a few more miles down a real road as she collected her thoughts. The method of war was not too surprising, but she was curious about the combatants. She hadn’t heard of Winchester having survived at all, let alone having an army, and this was much too far to the West to have been London (if London was still in stable condition), so who could have fielded such an organized and disciplined army?
The trees before her began to thin and she felt the road take a downward slope into a valley. She paused as her path opened into a breathtaking view of the land before her. Across the valley, now clear through the trees, was a series of tall hills crowned by shining fields and verdant forests. Built atop the tallest hills was a castle town, no reclaimed ruin but a fortress in its prime, surrounded by walls and fields of farms where the roads were no doubt busy with life. She was so lost in the view and the majesty of it all, overtaken by the almost fairytale beauty of the place, that she almost missed the sign pointing in its direction and what was written upon it. And here, for the first time in months in a world gone mad, Tegwen could truly say she was surprised. Written on the signpost pointing towards the castle was the single word:
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=13&sl=654