The Witch of Shadowmarsh
When the fate of the elves rests on the shoulders of an antisocial swamp witch, will a common enemy be enough to bring two disparate races together?
The Empire rules with an iron fist. The Valeroot elves have barely managed to survive, but at least they’re not Arthali witches like Elmerah. Her people were exiled long ago. Just a child at the time, her only choice was to flee her homeland, or remain among those who’d betrayed their own kind. She was resigned to living out her solitary life in a swamp until pirates kidnap her and throw her in with their other captives, young women destined to be sold into slavery.
With the help of an elven priestess, Elmerah teaches the pirates what happens to men who cross Arthali witches, but she’s too late to avoid docking near the Capital. While her only goal is to run far from the political intrigue taking place within, she finds herself pulled mercilessly into a plot to overthrow the Empire, and to save the elven races from meeting a bloody end.
Elmerah will learn of a dark magical threat, and will have to face the thing she fears most: the duplicitous older sister she left behind, far from their home in Shadowmarsh.
The Witch of Shadowmarsh is the first installment in the Moonstone Chronicles, an Epic Fantasy series suitable for all ages.
Release date: August 22, 2018
Publisher: Vulture's Eye Publications
Print pages: 326
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The Witch of Shadowmarsh
Sara C. Roethle
Elmerah checked the shackles on her wrists for the hundredth time. What a load of dung. How in Ilthune had lowly sea pirates been able to afford magic-nullifying wrist bonds? The ones on her ankles were just simple iron. She would free herself from those easily enough if she had access to her magic…which, she didn’t.
The heavy iron hurt her wrists and squeezed her boots uncomfortably at her ankles, not to mention the steady drip drip of water leaking in from the deck above her head to add to her annoyance. She leaned her back against the wooden wall of the small cabin near the ship’s bow, her temporary prison. Her long legs, clad only in thick tights, erupted in goosebumps.
A few other women shared the space with her, their heads slumped in the swinging lantern light. That her fellow captives were all women, and all young and fairly beautiful, told her one thing. They were on their way to be sold into slavery of the worst kind. Although, how the pirates intended to keep a witch like herself tethered for long was beyond her. The bigger question was, why? She was at least a decade older than the young girls, though she felt herself not horrible to look at. Her black hair and bronze skin hinted at her Arthali heritage, and she was curvy enough to be considered feminine, though her height and well-muscled frame scared off most male suitors.
Not that she’d been looking.
She shook her shackles again. The ship swayed gently, the sound of the choppy sea above muffling the soft weeping of her fellow prisoners.
Elmerah sneered. She’d never been one to weep, and she sure as Ilthune’s lance didn’t consider herself a victim. She was a temporary hostage, nothing more. As soon as she managed to rid herself of these shackles, she’d teach the sea pirates a lesson. They’d rue the day they decided it was a good idea to turn an Arthali swamp witch into a slave.
She glanced at her nearest fellow captive, barely illuminated by the swaying, lone lantern. The girl had long white hair like spider silk, and bony, angular features carved into perfect alabaster skin. Her downcast eyes dominated her small face, and pointed ears jutted out from beneath her hair. She was a Faerune elf, one of the Moonfolk. Elmerah knew that if the girl turned her large eyes upward, they would glint in the darkness. Faerune elves could see just as well at night as they could during the day. They were fast too, with incredibly agile hands that could send a dagger into your chest before you could even blink.
Agile hands, Elmerah thought, glancing once again at her shackles. Perhaps this girl could be of use to her.
“Psst,” she whispered, scooting closer to the girl.
The girl startled and glanced upward, and sure enough, her eyes glinted like moonlight. Her loose white tunic made her look like a ghost.
“Yes?” she asked softly, seeming to regain her composure. Poor girl couldn’t have been more than eighteen.
“Come over here,” Elmerah whispered. “I need your help.”
The girl narrowed her eyes, then clutching her shackled hands to her chest, she scooted along the floor until she was sitting side by side with Elmerah.
Elmerah lowered her head toward the girl. “Search my hair, I should still have some pins left in there.” She hoped she’d had some pins left. Even after the pirate caught her unawares and cuffed her, she’d put up a fight. The man had ripped a clump of her hair out in the struggle. She’d made up for it by kicking out two of his teeth.
The girl’s fingers tugged through Elmerah’s matted hair.
She cringed. She needed a bath.
“You smell like a swamp,” the girl muttered.
“Well you smell like fairy dung,” Elmerah grumbled. Never mind that the girl actual smelled like a crystal clear brook surrounded by wildflowers. Elves always smelled pleasant, except perhaps the Akkeri. The sea-riders smelled a bit like rotten fish.
“There,” the girl whispered, pulling a hairpin free. “Now what do you want me to do with it?”
Elmerah lifted her head, then held out her cuffed wrists. “Get these off me and I’ll make these pirates pay.”
The girl’s eyes widened, as if finally just really seeing her. “You’re Arthali,” she gasped, retracting the pin toward her chest.
Elmerah fought the urge to sneer. Pureblood Arthali had been exiled from the Ulrian Empire over three decades ago, but old fears ran as deep as the Kalwey Sea. “Yes,” she hissed, “so you know I can back up my claims.”
The elf girl met her gaze for several seconds, then lowered trembling hands to Elmerah’s cuffs. “Arcale protect me,” she muttered as she inserted the pin into the keyhole.
The girl’s words inspired Elmerah to take a closer look at her garb. The white tunic, embroidered with little silver moons, topped fitted white pants. Her brows raised in recognition. These pirates really were idiots. They’d not only kidnapped an Arthali witch, but a Faerune priestess. If the elves ever found out about this, every last pirate would surely meet a swift end.
The pin clicked in the lock.
Elation filled her as she pulled off the cuffs, then hurriedly pumped magic into the benign shackles around her ankles, which soon clicked open. She stood, then looked down at the Faerune priestess.
Seeming to sense her hesitation, the girl glared. “You said you’d get us out of here.”
“Actually, I said I’d make these pirates pay.”
The girl’s glare deepened.
She’d be a fool to get involved with the elves, but—she huffed out a long breath, then held a hand out to the girl. “Hold the cuffs away from your body.”
Still staring up at her, the girl obeyed.
Elmerah pushed magic into the cuffs. They fell away from the girl’s wrists, then clattered to the wooden planks, followed by the ones at her ankles.
The girl stood, a full head shorter than Elmerah “Now the others,” she demanded.
Elmerah glared down at her. “Weren’t you just trembling in your boots about freeing an Arthali witch? Are you sure you should be making demands?”
Her glare did not waver.
“Fine,” Elmerah hissed. “They’ll prove a worthwhile distraction, if nothing else.”
She made her way around the small cabin, freeing the other women one by one. There were six in total, eight counting herself and the elven priestess. Some of the women stood, but others remained slumped on the floor, broken.
The elf girl watched her expectantly.
“I’ve freed them,” she grumbled. “If they’re not willing to help themselves now, there’s nothing I can do. Now I’m off to murder some pirates.”
After a moment, the elf girl nodded. She marched across the small space away from the lantern’s light and retrieved something from a dark corner, then returned to Elmerah with a long oar in hand, taller than the girl holding it.
“You Moonfolk really can see in the dark, can’t you?”
She nodded. “Yes, now let us go enact our vengeance.”
Elmerah smirked. Perhaps she’d made a wise choice in allying herself with the girl after all. She made her way toward the rickety wooden steps leading up to the deck. A heavy padlock dangled from the trapdoor above.
She made quick work of it, overwhelming the metal components with magic until they snapped. Leave it to pirates to only buy enchanted shackles and not a padlock. They were in way over their heads.
The women had all herded together behind her, those who’d stood on their own now supporting those who’d refused.
“What’s your name?” Elmerah asked the elven girl as she reached her side.
She gripped the oar tightly in her hands. “Saida Fenmyar.”
“Elmerah Volund,” she introduced. “Are you ready, Saida?”
Elmerah tossed the trap door open, landing with a loud thwack on the deck above. She rushed up the final steps, angry magic coursing through her veins. Only three of the men were on deck, all turned toward her with jaws agape.
She kicked the nearest one right in his hanging jaw, darting in and stealing his cutlass before he hit the deck.
“I thought you’d use magic to attack them,” Saida said, facing the other two men just a few paces off as the other women ascended behind her.
“I’m saving it for their leader,” Elmerah explained. “Plus, I was really feeling like I needed to kick someone in the face.”
The other two men neared, weapons drawn. Their dirty faces and ragged loose clothing hinted to their status as lowly crewman. “Oi!” one of them called out, “the prisoners are loose!”
More men would be on deck soon. They needed to act fast so they wouldn’t be overwhelmed. Elmerah lifted her cutlass, ready to fight, but Saida was way ahead of her. She launched herself at the men in a graceful leap, swinging the oar like a staff, her white hair streaming behind her. One man tried to counter, but his weapon was effortlessly flicked away, right before the oar swooped back around and smacked him with the broad side on the back of his head. The other man got the narrow side straight in his gut, knocking the wind from his lungs.
Elmerah would have liked to continue watching but more men had swarmed the deck, their legs braced wide against the swaying of the ship. She counted them, weighing their odds before realizing she’d be out of magical energy by the time this fight was over. The other women huddled together near the trap door, their eyes squinted against the occasional gust of heavily salted air. Useless.
She lifted the cutlass toward the cloudy sky, filling it with more of her magic than she should have been expending, but she wasn’t about to risk someone shackling her once more. Her power surged into the blade to the point of bursting as the first man charged her.
A rumble in the sky echoed her guttural growl. She really shouldn’t be doing this, but it was too late to go back now. If she moved the sword, the lightning might be attracted to her instead.
The bolt hit the blade, absorbing into the metal. The man stumbled away, eyes wide. Too late for him as well. She whipped the blade downward, sending a bolt of lightning straight toward his chest. It hit its mark, then bounced to the next man before hitting the far wall of the above-deck cabin where it dissipated.
She spared a quick glance toward Saida, who’d stayed near the women, protecting them with her oar, then turned back as more men charged her. One had a new set of shackles in hand.
“Get them ‘round her wrists!” a finely dressed man shouted from a safe distance.
Her lip quivered with a snarl. She’d found the captain.
Still bursting with energy, she whipped the sword toward the men, tossing them aside with electrical currents. She surged forward, slicing any who’d not fallen with her blade. One man’s cutlass neared her throat, then fell away as an oar thunked down upon his sweaty brow.
“My thanks!” Elmerah shouted, slamming her shoulder into another pirate and sending him overboard.
She turned toward another, brandishing her blade flickering with elemental sparks. She must have looked quite the sight, given a wet spot soon formed on his breeches. He tossed his cutlass aside and willingly followed his fellow pirate into the sea.
Her snarl still in place, she turned toward the captain. He was attempting to unlock the cabin door behind him, but his trembling hands were fumbling the key. She stalked toward him. Saida stood back with her oar in hand and several men lying broken at her feet.
The captain glanced over his shoulder at her approach. His blue eyes widened. With his shiny black hair and clear complexion he was almost handsome. Unfortunately, the stain of capturing slaves made him ugly.
His little metal key clattered to the deck.
Cutlass still in hand, Elmerah knelt to retrieve it. She stood, dangling the key in front of his face. “I believe you dropped this.”
“Please don’t kill me,” he whimpered.
Her smile broadened. “Did you really think it was a good idea to kidnap an Arthali witch? My people are well known for showing little mercy.”
“I was just following orders. Please, I’ll tell you everything. I’ll tell you who hired me and you can go after her.”
Her? Now that was interesting.
“I’m guessing any information I might want is contained in the cabin behind you,” she gestured to the locked door with her cutlass. “I’m not seeing any reason to spare you.”
Footsteps sounded behind her, then Saida appeared at her side. “We’ll take him back to my people. He will stand trial for his crimes.”
Elmerah snorted. “I’m not going anywhere near the elves.” She turned back to the captain, offering him the key. “Unlock it. Let’s see what you have inside.”
The captain snatched the key, then unlocked the door with still trembling hands. “Thank you,” he muttered. “Thank you for not bringing me to the elves.” He pushed the door open.
His thanks sent a disgusted shiver down Elmerah’s spine. She turned and gave Saida a subtle nod.
The oar came down. The captain crumpled.
Elmerah glanced back at the waiting women, then to Saida. “Have them tie up any who still live. I’m going to take a look around.”
Saida nodded, then returned to the women as Elmerah stepped over the prostrate captain into the office.
The furnishings were sparse, but high quality. A heavy oak writing desk dominated the far wall, stationed next to a bed with a proper mattress topped with vibrant silks and fluffy feather pillows. While the bed appealed to her tired body, she was more interested in the desk, and what information its drawers might contain.
She marched across the room, fighting her sluggishness as her adrenaline seeped away. She’d used far too much magical energy calling lightning to her new cutlass. It would have been easier with an enchanted sword, but her weapons had been left behind when she was kidnapped.
Swapping the cutlass to her left hand, she opened the middle drawer. Ink, bitterroot with a pipe, and blank sheets of parchment. Useless. She opened the next drawer. Empty. Why even have a desk? When the third drawer revealed only a few clean handkerchiefs, she turned back to the rest of the cabin. She could hear Saida outside directing the other women to bind all the men, but she still wanted to act fast. She’d like to be far away on one of the smaller boats long before the ship reached shore. If it reached shore. She would be highly surprised if any of the women actually knew how to sail.
She narrowed her gaze at one of the floorboards near the bed. It was slightly raised from the others.
She stepped toward it, then halted, feeling dizzy. She’d used far too much power. She’d be lucky to make it to shore on her own at all.
“Are you well?” a woman’s voice asked.
She turned to see Saida peeking into the cabin.
“All the men are bound, but we should decide what to do soon. If I’m not mistaken, we are headed toward Galterra.”
“The Capital?” Elmerah balked, swaying on her feet. She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. Could you check that floorboard?” she pointed. “I’ll take whatever is hidden down there and depart on one of the smaller boats.”
Saida marched across the room and knelt, easily prying up the floorboard with her fingertips. She withdrew a stack of rolled documents, set them aside, then withdrew three large leather pouches of coin.
Elmerah stepped forward, then snatched two pouches of coin from Saida’s hands and affixed them to her belt. Next she retrieved the folded documents from the floor and placed them under her arm. After a moment of debate, she tossed her new cutlass aside with a dull clang, then approached the unconscious captain in the doorway. Sure enough, a far finer cutlass was at his hip. She slid it from his belt, considering skewering the man with his own blade, but walked out into the open air instead. A storm was brewing further out to sea, and she really wanted to start paddling before it was too late.
Saida hurried out after her, then past her. “There are four extra boats,” she explained. “We should all be able to reach shore easily enough.” She retrieved her oar from one of the women, then turned back to Elmerah. “It would be best to have four women per boat, everyone can row.”
Elmerah stalked past her toward the lower cabin where they’d been held prisoner, the pouches of coin jangling at her hips. “I told you, I’ll be leaving on my own. The rest of you would be wise to take only one boat, and take turns rowing. It is more tiring than you think.”
Saida followed her as she descended the stairs into the cabin. “If that is true, then how do you intend to man a boat on your own?”
“It’s tiring for weak young girls,” Elmerah muttered, groping about in the darkness for the oars. “Not for me.”
Saida stomped a few paces past her, reached into the darkness, then handed Elmerah an oar. Her elven eyes glinted in the near dark. “There’s no need to be difficult. We’re all in this together. Surely once we reach Galterra we will be offered aid.”
Elmerah raised an eyebrow at her. “Have you ever been to Galterra?”
Saida lifted her nose into the air. “Once, with an envoy. My clan was signing a new trade agreement.”
Elmerah held out her hand expectantly for another oar, which Saida soon offered her. “You saw the Capital on its best behavior,” she explained. “I advise you to don a hood as soon as you reach shore. Keep your hair and ears covered, and don’t let anyone see your eyes at night.”
Saida’s dainty jaw dropped, but Elmerah had no more time to explain things to her. She herself would wear a hood if she decided to enter the Capital. While she might not stand out quite as much as an elf, her height and coloring would give away exactly what she was, a pure-blooded Arthali, not the half-breeds still allowed in the Empire. Many would steer clear of her, but others would view her as a challenge. Oars in hand, she turned and walked back up the stairs.
She heard the clatter of oars behind her, then thunks coming up the stairs after her, but didn’t turn to look. If the girl wanted to carry oars and make herself responsible for the other women, that was her choice.
Her own oars in hand, she strode toward the side of the ship, then stopped in her tracks. She would have palmed her face if she had a free hand. She’d need someone to help her lower her boat down to the sea.
She turned back with a huff to see Saida handing out oars to the other women. A few of the men still alive had come to, and were groaning and pleading to be set free. She would have kicked them into silence if she had the energy. Cursed Ilthune her limbs were tired.
“Hey elf girl!” she called out. “Why don’t you let the others row into Galterra to report what has happened, and you and I can find some quiet place far from the docks from which to disappear.”
Saida approached, her brow furrowed. “I thought you wanted to go alone.”
Elmerah shifted her oars to lean against the deck, then brushed a clump of salt-saturated hair from her face. “If you’d like to take your chances in Galterra, be my guest. I’m just trying to help you.”
Her gaze narrowed. “Show me how to lower a boat for the other women, then I’ll go with you, but only to the shore. After that I’ll head toward Galterra to send word to my mother.”
Elmerah fought her shoulders as they threatened to slump in relief. Saida was a bit scrawny, but she could still help her row . . . not that she’d ever openly admit to needing the help.
“Please,” a nearby man groaned. “Just untie us. We can help you lower the boats.”
Elmerah found she suddenly had enough energy to land her boot against his ribs.
After a pained oof, he kept his mouth shut.
“Let’s go. I want to reach the shore before the storm hits.”
Saida nodded, then moved past her toward the waiting women.
Elmerah watched her go, though her thoughts were no longer on the elf girl. Rather, her thoughts were on what in the name of Arcale she was going to do when she reached shore. Without the use of a ship, it would take her weeks to reach home again. She had no food or travel supplies, and no time to search the ship for such things if she didn’t want to get stuck in a tiny boat in a storm.
She patted her belt pouch. At least she had coin, and if she could find a place to rest, she could regain enough energy to protect herself. She just needed to get through a single night, then she’d be fine . . . At least, that’s what she kept telling herself.
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