Being born undead can have its disadvantages, such as eternal youth and flawless beauty -things most unsuitable for a witch. Hiding behind the guise of a grimy old crone, the witch is content living outside Fort Stalwart with her unlikely band of allies: a troll named Gwurm, an enchanted broom, and a demonic duck named Newt. She leads a simple life filled with spells, potions, and the occasional curse.
So when a White Knight arrives at Fort Stalwart, the witch knows her days of peace are at an end. The Knight is just days in front of a horde of ravenous goblings, and Fort Stalwart lies right in the horde's path. But the goblings are just the first wave of danger, and soon the witch and the Knight must combine forces on a perilous quest to stop a mad sorcerer from destroying the world.
Filled with menace, monsters, and magic, A Nameless Witch is a properly witchly read by the award-winning author of Gil's All Fright Diner and In the Company of Ogres.
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A Nameless Witch
By A. Lee Martinez
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2007 A. Lee Martinez
All rights reserved.
I was born dead. Or, to be more accurate, undead. Not that there is much difference between the two. It's just a matter of degrees really.
When I say undead, I do not mean vampyre, ghoul, or graveyard fiend. There are many versions of unlife. These are only the most common. My state was far less debilitating. Bright lights bothered me to some noticeable degree, and I preferred my meat undercooked. Once reaching adulthood, I'd become ageless. Most means of mortal harm could not truly hurt me, and I possessed a smattering of unusual gifts not known among the living. Yet all these advantages came at a high price.
Exactly how I came to be born undead is a long, complicated story not really worth telling in detail. It involves my great-great-great-great-grandfather, a renowned hero of the realm, and his conflict with a dark wizard. This wizard, his name is lost to history so I just call him "Nasty Larry" for convenience' sake, had raised an army of orcish zombies to ravage the land. Now everyone knows orcs are terrible things, and zombies aren't much fun either. Mix the two together and you get an evil greater than the sum of its parts. Naturally, a legion of heroes was assembled, and the requisite last stand against doomsday was fought and won by a hairsbreadth. My great-great-great-great-grandfather slew Nasty Larry, cleaving his head from his shoulders with one sweep of a mighty broadsword. Nasty Larry's head rolled to his slayer's feet and pronounced a terrible curse, as decapitated wizard's heads are prone to do.
"With my dying breath, I curse thee and thy bloodline. From now until the end of time, the sixth child of every generation shall be made a gruesome abomination. A twisted, horrible thing that shall shun the light and dwell in miserable darkness."
That bit of business finished, Nasty Larry died. According to legend, he melted into a puddle, the sky turned black, and — if one could believe such tales — the land within a hundred miles turned to inhospitable swamp. That was the end of Nasty Larry's small, yet noteworthy, influence on my life.
I often wondered why my parents chose to have a sixth child, being forewarned as they were. They had many excuses. The most common being, "We lost count." Second common, and far more acceptable in my opinion, was, "Well, none of our family had ever had six, and we thought it might not have taken." Perfectly reasonable. Not all curses grab hold, and one couldn't live one's life fretting over every utterance of every bodiless head one ran across.
Being undead was not all that horrible a curse. Unfortunately, this was not the end of my worries. For besides being made a thing born to dwell in darkened misery, I was also made, in the infinite wisdom of fate, a girl. These two conditions taken individually were minor handicaps, but toss them together, and you would understand the difficulties I experienced growing up.
There are kingdoms where a woman is prized for her mind, where she is more than a trophy or a poorly paid housemaid. Kingdoms where the chains of a thousand years of chauvinism have finally rusted away. I was not born in one of these kingdoms.
I was not very popular among the male suitors of my village. It was nothing personal. Husbands just prefer living wives, and I met so few potential spouses locked in my parents' basement. At the age of eighteen, I was already an old, undead maid sitting in a darkened cellar, waiting to die.
Of course, I don't die. Not like normal people. Certainly, old age wouldn't accomplish the task. So I settled in for a very long wait. I figured it would be another fifty years before my parents died and one of my brothers or sisters would inherit caretaking duties of their poor, wretched sibling. One of their children would take over next. And so on. And so on. Until one day, they either forgot me, or all died, or maybe, just maybe, an angry mob would drag me from the shadows and burn me at the stake. Not much to look forward to. But no one is master of their fate, and my lot was not all that terrible in the end.
All that changed with the arrival of Ghastly Edna. That wasn't her real name. I never learned it. I just called her "Ghastly Edna" because it seemed a proper witch's name. She was a grotesquely large woman, bearlike in proportions, with a pointed hat, a giant hooked nose, and a long, thin face. Her skin, while not truly green, possessed a slick olive hue. Her nose even had a wart. Ghastly Edna's only flaw, witchly speaking, was a set of perfectly straight, perfectly polished teeth.
The day I met Ghastly Edna changed everything, and I remember it well. The basement door opened. I scrambled to the foot of the stairs to collect my daily meal. Instead, she came lumbering down. Her bulky frame clouded the light filtering behind her. She placed a callused hand under my chin and smiled thinly.
"Yes, yes. You shall do, child."
Ghastly Edna purchased me from my parents for a puny sum. I'm certain they were glad to be rid of their cursed daughter, and I couldn't honestly blame them. My new mentor whisked me away to her cottage in the middle of some forsaken woods far from civilization. The first thing she did was clean me up. It took six long hours to wash away the accumulated filth of eighteen years and cut the tangle of hair atop my head. When she finally finished, she stood me before a small mirror and frowned.
"No, no, no. I do not like this. I do not like this one bit."
The effect this had on my self-esteem was immediate and crushing. I'd always know myself to be a hideous thing. Yet Ghastly Edna was no prize beauty herself, and to evoke such a revolted tone could only mean that Nasty Larry's curse had really had its way with me.
"You're not ugly, child," she corrected. "You're quite" — her long face squished itself into a scowl — "lovely"
I had yet to dare look in the mirror for fear of being driven mad by own hideousness. Now I chanced a sidelong glance through the corner of my eye. It was not the sanity-twisting sight I had expected, but still a far cry from lovely.
"But what about these?" I cupped the large, fatty mounds on my chest.
"Those are breasts," Ghastly Edna said. "They're supposed to be there."
"But they're so ... so ..."
"Round. Firm." She sighed. "That's how they're supposed to be. Ideally."
I found that hard to believe, but I wasn't about to argue with the person who'd rescued me from my solitary existence.
"And that bottom of yours." She mumbled. "You could bounce a gold piece off it."
"But the skin is pale," I offered, trying to please her.
"It's not pale, dear. It's alabaster." She circled me twice, looking more disappointed with each passing moment. "And I don't believe I've ever seen eyes quite that shade of green. Or lips so full and soft. And your hair. I washed it with year-old soap, and it's still as soft as gossamer." She drew close and sniffed. "And it smells of sunflowers."
"What about my teeth? Surely they're not supposed to look like that."
She checked my gums and teeth with her fingers. "No, dear. You're quite correct. They're a tad too sharp. But it's not an obvious flaw, and besides that, they're nice and white. Good gums too. The tongue has a little fork in it, but only if you're looking for it."
She ordered me into a seat, still naked and slightly damp from the bath.
"Are you certain you spent all your life in that basement?" I nodded.
"No exercise. Dismal diet. Dwelling in filth. Yet somehow you come out like this. Not even half-mad as far as I can tell."
"You mean, I'm not cursed, ma'am?"
"Oh, you are cursed, child, and undead. That much is certain. Curses come in many forms however, and not all are as bad. Especially death curses. It's tricky enough to cast a decent spell when you're still alive. But throwing one out as you're expiring requires a certain knack. Apparently, the wizard who cursed your family was not as in control of his magic as he should've been. The undead part came through, but the hideousness element didn't quite make it. The magic must've had a better idea as it sometimes does."
She handed me a towel. "Cover yourself, dear. I can't bear to look upon you anymore."
I did as I was told.
"That's the thing about death curses. One really shouldn't employ them unless one feels they can pull it off. It just makes the rest of us look bad."
She spent several minutes rocking in her chair, mulling over the situation. A dread fell upon me. I didn't want to be sent back to my cellar if I could help it. Given no other choice, I'd accepted my fate. Now my universe was filled with other possibilities, and I didn't want to lose them.
Ghastly Edna snapped up from her chair.
"Well, dear, the magic called me to you. Far be it from me to contradict it. Your loveliness just means you'll have to work harder at your witchery. A handicap yes, but not an insurmountable one." She peeled the wart from her nose. "False, darling." She winked.
She proceeded to wipe the greenish makeup from her face to reveal skin that, while rough and haggard, was not especially hideous. She removed six layers of clothing to show that her hunch was nothing more than an illusion of well-placed fabric. When she removed her hat, I realized that Ghastly Edna was a large and ugly woman, but not at all witchly without her full outfit.
"We all need a little help, dear. You just need far more than I. Now let me see what I have here that might do the trick." She began digging through various moldy trunks filled with equally moldy clothing.
My heart leaped with joy.
Ghastly Edna spent the next six months acquainting me with the ins and outs of witchly wardrobe. Wearing just the right outfit was fifty percent of a witch's business, she explained. She was not exaggerating. It took a great deal of work to make one look as bad as was expected. Especially for me, my mentor pointed out, as I was afflicted with a form most unsuitable for a witch.
Once I'd mastered the art of looking witchly, she proceeded to teach me the black arts: necromancy, demonology, the forgotten language of unspeaking things, and forbidden nature lore. The powers of magic that had drawn Ghastly Edna to me had not been mistaken, and in due course, I mastered the craft of the witch.
And for a while, I was happy.
Until the dark day when they finally killed her.CHAPTER 2
Exactly how long I lived with Ghastly Edna, I couldn't say. It was forever autumn in those woods, and as a side effect of my ageless nature, I do not measure time well. I assume Ghastly Edna did grow older, but as she was a wrinkled, old witch when I'd first met her, she didn't get more wrinkled, at least not noticeably so, over the course of my tutelage.
However long it took, it was soon after I'd learned everything she could teach me that she woke me early one morning. The morning light perturbed the undead in me, and Ghastly Edna respected this. I knew right away something was wrong.
"No questions, dear," she said. "I need you to go to the lake."
I stirred from my bed. "But, mistress ..."
She put her fingers to my lips. "Shush, child. I don't have time to explain, and even if I did, I don't have to. You'll do as I say."
"Very good. Now you must go and bathe yourself in the lake. And I'm not talking about merely your face and hands. I mean, your entire body. I know the light will bother you, so you can wear your hat to shade your eyes. But otherwise, you must strip off every other stitch. After you've gotten yourself nice and clean, you must hurry back. I'll be dead by then, and we'll have one last talk before I go."
This final piece of news stopped me cold.
"I said, shush, child. Now get dressed. We'll have time to talk when you return. But you must hurry to the lake." She lumbered from my small room, barely squeezing through the door. "And don't bother with the whole outfit. Just your hat and your black dress, that one with the loose skirt."
I always did as Ghastly Edna told, and today was no exception. As I got dressed, I couldn't help but think about her death. Not for a moment did I doubt it was going to be. She often spoke of the future and other things that she could not know. It was the magic. It talked to her, and as far as I could tell, it never lied. It was not fate, she'd explained once, but rather the past yet to be. Not to be confused with the future that might come or the present that never was. Subtle distinctions I'd never truly understood, but Ghastly Edna had reassured me this was not my fault. It could not be properly explained by her. Only by the magic, and the magic had never talked to me. Rather, I'd yet to hear it.
I slipped on my dress. It was comfortable cloth cut in a most unflattering way. It failed to hide away all the unwanted charms of my unwitchly form, but it was better than nothing. Normally, I wouldn't dare be seen outside without a tattered cloak and a frumpy shawl. I scowled, pressing a palm against my flat stomach. I'd been working to develop a flabby belly and chubby behind for as long as I could remember. The curse kept them tight and toned, no matter how much I ate.
"Hurry up, dear," Ghastly Edna said.
I grabbed my hat, tattered and pointed with a wide brim, and headed for the door. On the way out, I stopped and watched my mistress, her back to me, fussing over the stove.
She did not turn around. "And take Newt with you. He'll soon be yours anyway. Might as well get used to each other."
I still couldn't bring myself to leave. Not that I thought staying would do much good. If the magic said she was to die then I couldn't stop it.
"Be off, child." She glanced over her shoulder. "Don't make me box your ears."
The hard light burned my eyes. I tolerated it, but its rays prickled my skin. I shivered beneath a warm breeze. I pulled my brim over my face and gave myself time to adjust to the morning.
I called for Newt.
"You don't have to shout," he said from the cabin roof. "I'm right here."
"We have to go to the lake."
Newt cocked his head to one side, squinting one eye at me.
"The mistress ordered it."
He cocked his head the other way. "What for?"
"She didn't say. Just that we must hurry."
"You're to come with me."
"Are you certain?"
Ghastly Edna shouted from the darkened cabin. "Go on, Newt! Do as she says!"
"Oh, very well."
Newt was my mistress's familiar. Familiars come in countless varieties: demons molded into animal shape, enchanted creatures, dreams made flesh, flesh made dream. Ghastly Edna had created Newt by enchanting a waterfowl with intelligence and speech and then grafting a pinch of pure demonic essence. The end result was an ill-tempered duck, unhappy with the entire world and quite willing to share his unhappiness.
Being a duck was what he was most unhappy with. Not just a duck, but a white duck. Brown feathers trimmed his wings and ran down his back, but they failed to make him more sinister. Even if he'd been midnight black, I don't think it would've helped. Ducks, even demon ducks, just aren't terrifying to look upon.
He hopped off the roof to land beside me. "Let's get going then. If we must. You'd better get dressed."
"I am dressed."
"I think not. You're barely covered at all."
I explained that this was all Ghastly Edna allowed me to wear. He quacked his displeasure. We walked the path down to the lake. Newt had a peculiar way of walking. His bowlegged swagger seemed more ridiculous than a traditional waddle. I'd told him once, and he'd told me to mind my own business. So I did. Even if he did walk like a bird with a rash between his legs.
When we got to the lake, I hesitated to do as I was told. I'd spent most of my life in the dark. I'd bathed in the lake many times before, but always at night. Not that the sun was a true danger. I just wasn't used to it. It was so bright, and I would be so exposed.
Newt sighed. "Get on with it, would you?"
I pulled my hat tighter on my head and slipped off my dress.
Newt sighed again. "Dark gods, girl, you're beautiful." It was not intended as a compliment.
Excerpted from A Nameless Witch by A. Lee Martinez. Copyright © 2007 A. Lee Martinez. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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