Hauntingly beautiful stories of a love that endures through time itself.
A Dark Witch's (Epic) Tale
by MAGGIE SHAYNE
COPYRIGHT 2020 BY MS LEWIS - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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For the first time in four thousand years Puabi was ready to die. And it looked as if she would get her wish. Flames surrounded her, searing her flesh, and every breath she drew burned in her throat and lungs. And yet she could see them. Beyond the smoke and dancing tongues of ravenous fire, she could see them. Her husband with his mistress wrapped up in his arms, safe outside in the cool night air while Puabi burned. Through the window glass she saw them, beyond thickening smoke and flaming draperies. Then the window exploded and fire filled the open space. Even her preternatural eyesight couldn’t pierce the wall of hellfire then.
It was over. He’d left her for dead, relieved to be rid of her. They would probably celebrate her demise. Justifiably.
She was tired, tired of fighting to stay alive, and tired of hating. She told herself to just close her eyes. Just lie there and let the hungry fire do its work. But something inside her fought back. It made her struggle to her feet, that insistent something. It forced her to drag herself through the inferno, toward what she sensed was the rear of the house. Her dress caught fire. Her hair smoldered and smoked, and her skin blistered. She would have screamed in anguish had she a voice, or even a breath left in her. But she didn’t. If she’d been an ordinary woman, she’d have been dead. But Puabi was not ordinary. She was an Immortal. A Dark Immortal High Witch, to be precise. To be even more precise, the darkest. So she stumbled onward, a living torch in pain so intense every nerve ending sent lightning bolts through her brain. Finally, she fell, unable to go any farther, her limbs no longer obeying her mind’s commands, just twitching randomly and without purpose.
There was, she realized slowly, cool, damp ground beneath her. And…yes, there was blessed, icy rain pouring down on her from above. Life-giving rain. And still that something inside, whatever it was, urged her irresistibly to keep trying. She attempted to get to her feet, but couldn’t rise even as far as her knees. Stretching out one arm, she clawed her fingers into the earth and dragged herself forward. Then she stretched out the other arm. Digging into the wet soil, she pulled herself inch by agonizing inch. She couldn’t bear the thought of them coming upon her this way. Seeing her with her skin charred black and her life force ebbing low. They would finish her off, if they found her. They would tell themselves it was a mercy. And it would be.
They’d won in the end, hadn’t they? Eannatum had taken everything from her. Everything. She would not let his be the hand that took her life, as well. She would die on her own terms.
And so she dragged her unwilling body toward the cliffs. “To hell with him,” she whispered, or tried to. The sound that emerged was more of a formless rasp. At last she reached ahead to find there was no more ground to grasp. She tried to use her eyes and saw a blurring, yawning darkness and far below, the boiling white froth that must be the sea. Just shapes and vague colors, the smell of the ocean and the sound of its roar. “To hell with both of them. And to hell with this world. I’ve had my fill of it.”
With one last effort Queen Puabi of Ur, and once of all the thirty kingdoms of Sumer, darkest of the Dark High Witches, pulled herself over the edge and into oblivion. And as she plummeted, she wondered how many times she would drown and revive and drown again before her power ran out. And what would become of her then?
Could there be peace for one as purely evil as she? Or would she remain trapped in some semblance of awareness even while the sea creatures fed on her flesh? She didn’t know. She didn’t care.
Anything was better than the anguish she left behind.
Or so she thought, until she smashed through the surface of the sea like smashing through concrete. Pain she’d thought could not get worse intensified a thousandfold as brine seared her burned flesh.
The flames paled in comparison.
It was enough. Too much. She was going to drown in the ocean, and she would not revive again. Not this time. She sank deep, but again, something inside argued back. And this time, it had a voice.
You’re not finished yet, Puabi. Not yet. You’ve left too much undone.
The Voice was not her own, but she recognized it. It was the same something that had driven her to get to her feet, to stagger from the inferno and crawl to the cliff, to pull herself over the edge, to plummet into the cold Atlantic off the coast of Maine. It was a voice she’d heard before, somewhere in the murkiness of her buried past.
I made a promise long ago, It said. Now I will keep it.
The sea coughed Puabi up and swept her into a current so powerful she could not have resisted even had she been at full strength. But she was weak, her power waning. She closed her eyes and visions swept over her as powerfully as the ocean’s waves.
* * *
When Puabi opened her eyes again, she was in another place, another time. Or rather she saw a vision of this time and place.
She was in a mud-brick house in the city of Ur, a glittering oasis on the banks of the Euphrates. A pear-shaped midwife with white hair in a dozen uneven knots all over her head told a beautiful young woman to push. Puabi watched, somehow there and not there at the same time, and she saw every muscle in the woman’s body tremble.
Her name was Aya, the Voice said, and Puabi knew it was so.
“I cannot,” Aya cried, falling flat onto her sleeping mat of woven rushes. “I cannot push anymore. I’ve no strength left in me.”
The striped curtain moved aside and a large man bent to enter through the low, arched doorway. Somehow Puabi knew this place was not even Aya’s home.
She lived in the temple before, as my priestess, the Voice went on.
Aya shot a pleading look at the midwife, but she only saluted the man, cupping one hand round the other fist near her chest, and bent her head.
Aya’s face lit with joy, though, when she finally looked him in the face. “Kirkuk! My beloved!”
He was a big man, strong, bald except for a single braid that reached from the center of his head to middle of his back. His skin was dark bronze and his hair black, like that of all their people.
Aya loved him.
He knelt beside the mat she lay upon and clasped her hand. “You are strong enough to do this, Aya,” he said, his dark eyes blazing into hers.
She seemed to drink him in. He wore a white linen kaunake with a braided red sash at his waist. His muscular arms were bare and smooth, save the golden torque just at the bulging place. “I have not seen you since the night we made this child,” she whispered. “I am so happy you have come at last.”
Puabi watched as another wave of constriction gripped Aya, and her eyes sought his. His gaze, however, was upon her lower half. Releasing her hand, he went around to her feet and looked there, as the midwife said, “Push, Aya. Just once more. The worst is nearly past.”
She clenched her fists, but seemed weak.
“You might wait outside, En Kirkuk,” the midwife said in deferential tones.
“I have attended them all, have I not?”
“This one is…special,” the midwife said. Puabi knew her. Her name was Bela.
And she knew Kirkuk, as well. He was her father.
Kirkuk looked at the old woman more intently for a moment. “All the more reason I be present do you not agree?”
Bela bowed deeply. “May the prophecy be fulfilled.”
Puabi felt the chill that went through Aya at Kirkuk’s words, but then another contraction came and she gasped, and cried out.
He caught her eye and softened his face, even smiled at her, his twinkling brown eyes loving. And he said, “Push, Aya.”
“For you, yes. For you, my love, I can do anything.” Aya bore down.
“That’s it, keep pushing, keep pushing!”
They young mother clenched her fists and screwed up her face, and her very thoughts flitted through Puabi’s own mind. She thought about the life they would have, the three of them. She wrapped her hands around her knees and pulled them almost to her shoulders as she pushed. Puabi closed her eyes too and felt her body being torn.
Aya took a breath, then another, and another, her mouth wide, her body drained. Then, with one final push, the child was born. She let go her legs and fell back onto the mat, resting her body while trying to get a glimpse of her baby. Bela had gathered the infant up and now held it in one arm, washing gently while Kirkuk looked on.
“Another girl,” he said. “By the eyes of Enlil.”
“Please,” Aya whispered. “Please, may I see my daughter?”
Kirkuk looked at her with a gentle smile and nodded. He took up a red blanket and wrapped the newborn in it as he scooped her from the midwife’s arms. And then he said to her, “Go, Bela. I have no more need of you here.”
She fisted her hand and said, “Yes, Kirkuk.” She looked Aya’s way, her beautiful eyes, little-girl brown in a much-creased face, were shadowed with an odd combination of certainty and dread. She said, “You have done well, Aya. Your name will be honored in times to come.”
Something was fluttering in Puabi’s chest, and in Aya’s as well, some feeling of alarm or warning.
Kirkuk knelt down once again, placing the clean, linen-wrapped baby into Aya’s arms. Puabi felt the young mother’s trepidation flee at the sight of her daughter, at the feel, and the sound, and the smell of her. She wriggled and nuzzled, eyes closed, rosebud lips working. “You may name her, if you wish,” he said.
Without hesitation, Aya said, “You are loved beyond all that exists, and your name shall be Puabi.”
“Puabi. Word of my father,” Kirkuk said. “I am honored.”
Shock rippled through Puabi as she realized that she was seeing her own birth, seeing the face of her own mother for the first time.
Aya looked up at him, smiled uncertainly. “I feared I would never see you again.”
“I had urgent needs to attend in all reaches of the thirty kingdoms. But I am here now.”
Aya returned her gaze to her child. She could not seem to stop looking at her for long. And Puabi found she could not look away either.
The baby stared back at her mother. Puabi saw that the child’s eyes were blue, flecked with gold like her own, and like the Goddess’s sacred stone. She bore a cap of thick, black hair. Her nose was turned up in the prettiest way.
Aya leaned down to kiss her forehead, and then she began to chant, “Inanna me en. Inanna me en. Inanna me en, utta am i i ki.”
“What is this, now?”
“I am calling down a blessing upon our daughter.” Aya lifted the baby carefully, holding her upward upon her hands. “This is your child, Inanna, just as I am your priestess. I bind her to you and you to her, that she will never be alone. Your strength and your protection will be hers. You will heal her wounds and keep her whole and see to it she finds her heart’s desire. As I have spoken, so will it be done.”
Puabi felt the goddess’s blessing enter the room and encircle the baby. It was thick and warm and real. A golden glow emanated from the infant for a fleeting moment.
Her arms trembling, Aya lowered the babe to her breast and allowed her to nurse. Her milk flowed readily and soon ran down little Puabi’s chin.
“I did not know you were a priestess of Inanna,” Kirkuk said.
Aya smiled down at her daughter. “I am a priestess of the temple no longer, but instead, a mother to you, dark Puabi. I will raise you in the ways of the Goddess.”
After a few minutes, the baby stopped nursing and went to sleep.
“I must rest,” Aya said. “I am so very tired. And I need to bathe, and get a fresh sleeping mat.”
“In a moment. I want to tell you a story first.” Kirkuk sat down on the floor beside Aya, but did not take the child from her arms. Puabi felt a chill run up her spine as she watched them. It was as if she was there in the room, but yet adift in the Atlantic. Kirkuk said, “A year ago, my necromancers, Bela, whom you have met, and her brother, Arkan, came to me. Bela had seen a vision, and Arkan helped her to interpret it.”
“Bela is a sorceress? I thought her a midwife.”
“She is many things. Magician. Prophetess. Healer.”
“I thought only kings had magicians in their employ.”
“I am the King of Ur’s brother,” he said. “Did you not know that, pretty Aya?
She blinked in apparent surprise. “I…no. I did not. “What was Bela’s vision?”
He moved the back of his forefinger over the baby’s soft cheek. “That a child of my loins would unite the thirty kingdoms under her rule, in her nineteenth year.”
“Puabi?” she asked, wide-eyed.
“Possibly. You see, I wanted to ensure I would live to see it. Well, more than see it, I suppose. I want to guide it. I would be the king behind the king. Or queen, as things turn out. No child of nineteen will have the wisdom and strength to rule on her own. Especially not a girl.”
“But you said your brother is King of Ur.”
“Well, that can be dealt with easily enough.”
“How?” The question was barely a breath.
“Try to stay focused, Aya. We are discussing my rulership–my child’s rulership–of all Sumer. This is prophecy. This is destiny.”
“Yes, I can see it is very important to you.”
“It is everything to me. Upon learning of this prophecy, I set about spreading my seed, to hurry its fulfillment.
“The prophecy said the child would be one of thirteen. Obviously, I needed to sire thirteen. I expected sons, of course. But every last one of them are female. All the way to little Puabi, here. She is a beauty, is she not?”
“Thirteen?” Aya asked. “In one year?”
“Yes. I have been quite busy. But prophecies do not lie. ‘The child will be one of thirteen,’ they said, ‘who within an hour of its birth bathes in the blood of its mother.’” Puabi saw the glint of the knife as he drew it across her mother’s throat. She was helpless to stop it, could only watch as the events of four thousand years ago unfolded as if they were happening right then, before her eyes.
Blood spurted. Aya clapped a hand to her neck to stanch the bleeding but it flowed between her fingers, around her hand, and over the baby. The infant wrinkled her face and started to cry.
“Here now, I have you, Puabi,” Kirkuk said, taking the baby from her mother’s arms. “Rest, Aya. Your work here is done. You have, perhaps, gestated and delivered a future ruler. As such, you are a precious offering to the gods.”
He turned and carried the baby away.
Aya stretched an arm toward him, trying to cry out only to choke on her own blood. He carried the baby through the striped curtain, never looking back. They were gone. Aya’s hand fell from her neck.
Puabi heard her mother’s dying prayer, though Aya was too weak to speak the words. Care for her, Inanna. Do not let evil be her destiny!
* * *
Maggie Shayne writes novels with sweeping intensity and bewitching passion!
- THE IMMORTALS is a Multi-Award-Winning Series!
- WINNER: RT Book Club Reviewers Choice Award
- WINNER: Reviewers Listserv, Best Paranormal Romance
- WINNER: New Jersey Romance Writers Golden Leaf Award
- WINNER: P.E.A.R.L.E. Award of Excellence
- WINNER: Barnes and Noble Top 10 Romances of the Year