A Season of Four Sisters

By Laurali

Chapter Two

Zindara, Warrior Witch of the South

Tuck had a hard time riding through the forest. The heavy rain and shaking earth created a treacherous path plagued with mud slides and hidden crevices in the ground. Soon he came to an impassible stone cliff that stretched for miles. There was only one way to go and that was up. Tuck had a terrible fear of heights so he paced the base of the cliff side back and forth, munching on an apple while he pondered his next move.

"Well let's see.... I could just go back and say I couldn't find her.

Which isn't really a lie, since the entrance to her cave must be somewhere up that cliff and I really haven't found it." Tuck was just about ready to mount his horse and ride back when the ground gave way beneath him. He fell a long way underground, sliding down a tunnel deep in the earth. Finally a the tunnel dumped him into a dark cavern.

Tuck was trying to focus his eyes in the dark when he saw a light in the distance coming closer. Soon he realized that the light came from a torch carried by a person walking towards him. As it came closer Tuck became frightened at what he saw: the creature bore a rack of sharp antlers upon it's head, the upper half of it's long leathery face was twisted in the ferocious snarl of a wolf. The monster's lithe body was wrapped in plates of thick leather, strapped together with strips of animal skins. It carried a thick nasty almost teardrop-shaped blade in one hand and the flaming torch in the other. When it stopped in front of him and raised the torch Tuck screamed.

The creature chuckled, a deep but feminine sound. She sheathed her blade and removed her helmet, revealing black hair tied back in war locks and sharp quick brown eyes.

"What have we here?" she purred, watching the way Tuck scuttled backwards away from her. "You're a long way from church, Friar. I can't imagine you came to collect for the parish, so I'll have to assume you came for me."

She removed her clawed gauntlet and held out her hand to help Tuck to his feet.

"Are,... are you the Witch of the South?" Tuck managed to ask. She didn't much look like a witch.

"Yes, I am Zindara. Come with me." She did not wait for him but turned back down the way she'd come. Tuck rushed to catch up with her long strides.

They came to a smaller cavern that looked to be Zindara's home. A large fire blazed in a stone circle in the middle of the room. Tanned skins stretched between stakes in the ground and heaped with furs served as her bed. Large chests held weaponry and armor of all kinds. Tuck would have sat down on a large pile of furs before the fire had it not growled menacingly at him. The large silver gray wolf rose and moved to it's mistress' side. Tuck decided a rock would serve him a better seat.

Zindara watched him with a curious eye. She perceived no real threat from him.

"Olwyn sent me to find you. Sherwood Forest and all it's people are suffering from the argument between you and your sisters. I've come to bring you to a meeting where we can talk about your problems together."

Tuck told her. Zindara snickered and rose to pace a circle around the fire.

"They want to talk. They always want to talk about everything. My husband is dead at Zaranin's hands and they want to talk. I'm done talking. It's all Zaranin's fault. She'll keep the men in the fields where they are useless to defend their families and lands against Prince John and the Normans. Next she'll have them baking pies and doing the laundry." She picked up a knife and threw it past Tuck's head where it embedded itself into the lid of a chest behind him. Wide eyed and nervous, Tuck didn't look back to see how close the blade had come to his head.

"I can see your point. We need all the help we can get fighting Prince John's men, but we need men to bring in the harvest too. If we don't then there won't be any food for the winter and people will starve. How many will be left to fight Prince John then?"

Zin watched Tuck from the corner of her eye. She turned away from him long enough to retrieve a sack she'd dropped in the entrance of the cave. She took out a freshly killed rabbit and began to skin it.

"They can live off the land, as I have my entire life. Soldiers don't need much." Zin spitted the rabbit and hung it over the fire. Soon the smell of roasting meat permeated the room.

"They're not all soldiers, Zindara." Tuck reminded her. "Not everyone was born to carry a sword."

"They can learn." She said. "Everyone should."

"Not everyone." Tuck absently tugged on his crucifix. "I could have been a farmer with a family of my own, or maybe a soldier fighting with King Richard in the Crusades, but I had another calling. Now the people of Sherwood Forest are my family. I am a soldier in the service of King Richard, but I fight against his enemies here rather than in the Holy Land. We all fight in our own ways, Zindara."

Zindara said nothing, but kept turning the rabbit over the fire. When it was done she cut the meat into portions, threw some wild lettuce onto a wooden plate before she passed it to Tuck. She kept a portion of meat for herself along with some of the lettuce and threw the third portion to the wolf who gulped it down quickly.

Tuck sampled the roasted rabbit, savoring the simple flavor of it. "If only I had some mustard to go with it." he mused.

"Don't need any of that fancy stuff. It can turn your stomach and weaken you in battle. Meat is meat, and that's enough." Zin commented as she ate using only her fingers and knife.

"Purist, eh?" Tuck smiled.

Zindara huffed something like a laugh and went back to eating.

Silence reigned through the rest of the short meal. After Tuck dealt with the washing up he noticed Zindara examining a chequered board bearing familiar wooden pieces.

"You play chess?" he asked.

"Of course. It's an exercise in strategy. Kings use it to plan battles."

Zin's eyes never left the board. "I play it myself, examining angles, looking for cracks in the defense. I used to play with my husband until his death."

"Care to play a game with me?" Tuck asked.

Zin hesitated two moments, then began to move the pieces back to their starting positions. They sat before the fire that never waned nor needed more fuel. The great gray wolf fell asleep and time fell away as Zindara and Tuck fought a battle with wooden soldiers on a chequered battlefield.

After a long study of the board Zindara moved a piece, securing her king's safety and putting Tuck's king in jeopardy. Zin sat back, satisfied that she'd beaten him soundly. "Check." she declared.

Tuck smiled faintly as he realized what she'd done. He viewed the unobstructed path his bishop had of her king. He slid the piece across the board and tapped her king. "Checkmate."

Zin's satisfied grin faded as she studied his move for several minutes.

Tuck helped himself to watered wine and reached out to pet the wolf's silvery pelt. He managed to snatch his hand back before it became the wolf's next meal.

"Where did you learn this? I know every gambit ever played, yet I don't recognize this one." She was curious rather than angry.

"In my years fighting with Robin Hood I have learned that not every scenario can be anticipated. Sometimes you just have to make it up as you go along. By the by, this wine would taste much better if you hadn't watered it down. It's a burgundy, but it should have had a few more years in the bottle to become a little more sophisticated." Tuck sampled the wine again to make sure his assessment was correct.

"Strong wine dulls the senses. And I usually don't drink wine at all. I keep that flask for cleaning wounds; the alcohol kills infection." Zin turned the board, still examining the remaining pieces.

"Now that's something I hadn't thought of before. Brother Henri duPont had sent me a few bottles of pinot noir that seemed kind of flat to my taste, and I'd been wondering what to do with it. Thanks for the suggestion!"

"Tell me how you saw this gambit. How did you plan it?" Zin was still entranced by the game board.

"Well, I really kind of came up with it on the spur of the moment, but I'll try to explain."

The Warrior Witch was still poring over her lost match when Tuck fell asleep in front of the fire.

Zonnaliese, Empathic Witch of the West

The earth shook beneath Little John's feet and a blast of hot air from a wide crevasse in the ground threw him backward. His horse reared up and refused to go any further. He'd have to go on foot from here. Leaving the horse tethered to a strong oak safely away from the crevasse, John headed in the direction of the river.

John wasn't particularly fond of water, but this is where the Witch of the West lived. If he had to cross the river to find her he would, but he really hoped it wouldn't come to that. The river flowed past him in a dangerous rush as he followed it upstream. The whirling wind cast whitecaps on the water and splashed John with a brackish spray.

John came to a kind of landing area on the bank of the river. Before him was a cliff and a thundering waterfall. He looked once again at his section of the map and that the waterfall was marked as the witch's home. Was it above the waterfall? Or perhaps it was on the other side of the river, hidden in the woods beyond?

John didn't have long to ponder the question before the answer presented itself. All of a sudden through the white curtain of water he saw a woman, yellow blonde hair cascading down past her waist. Through the tumbling water she beckoned to him. John thought nothing of his fear of deep water, but stepped in and walked toward the waterfall. It may have been an enchantment, but the water never came above John's ankles. The waterfall parted and made an entrance so John could step into the witch's home.

"I'm so glad you've come. I have not had company in so long. Please come in." she took his large hand in her impossibly small one and led him through a passage into her cavern. The walls and ceiling were bright crystal in shades of blues and greens, all polished by water until it was smooth and clear, the floor was white marble, sleek and cool. She enticed John to recline on a wide silk cushion and she took her seat opposite, watching him over a pool of swirling water. Small metal bowls floated in the water, ringing soothing chimes as they passed each other in the pool.

"What is your name? And what brings you to me? As I've said, I have not had visitors in a long while. It must be something terrible indeed that brings you to me." Her voice was gentle, soothing, and it reminded John of the stream that ran past the camp in Sherwood.

"My name is John Little, and a sorcerer named Olwyn sent me to find you." John shook his head, trying to rid himself of the urge to simply lie back and enjoy the comfortable surroundings. However, he'd barely uttered the words before she was by his side.

"Tell me all, John. Whatever hurt you've endured I'll take it away." She stroked his face with her warm soft hands and he relaxed at her touch. "I know your life must be full of hardships, and you're tired. Rest here a while with me. I'll take care of you." Before he knew it John was lying on his stomach and the witch was rubbing his back which was still sore from tilling in the field and hefting sacks of grain. For a moment he was afraid, remembering all too well the witches of the abbey who had bewitched and enslaved him, but his fear lasted only seconds before he succumbed to the comfort this witch gave to him.

"Talk to me John, I can help you if you'll only talk to me."

"Well, you see all these strange things are happening in Sherwood forest...."

"Strange, how?"

"In the morning it can be very hot, and by noon the ground is frozen and the plants begin to wither. The soil gets baked hard and dry, then rain comes and turns it all into mud."

"I see...." her voice trailed off, the pressure of her hands on his tired muscles lessened some.

John hardly noticed. "Then when we've got the hay stacked in the field to dry a wind comes and blows it all over the fields again!"

"Is that all?" she asked coldly. She stood and moved away from where John lay telling his tale.

"There's four witches who are fighting and causing all this damage and I have to help stop it. That's why I'm here. I'm looking for the Witch of the West." It finally hit him that the comforting massage had stopped and that the woman was on the other side of the room, staring out at the waterfall.

"My sisters sent you didn't they? They sent you to tell me to stay out of their argument. Well I won't do what they say! I know their arguing is causing trouble and I want them to stop, but they won't listen to me. All I can do is fight back and hope eventually they will stop." She had her back turned to John. He couldn't see her face, but sensed that she might be upset.

"That's why I'm here. I'm supposed to bring you to Sherwood so you can all sit down and talk about it. We'll help you settle whatever it is you're arguing about." John rose and went to her, touched her shoulder. She whirled on him and it was all he could do to step out of her way as she paced the room.

"It's not my argument, not truly. It's Zaranin and Zindara who started it.

They're arguing about their husbands' deaths. Then of course Zelkinane has to put her hand in it and it gets worse. I lost my husband too! It was all their fault but you don't see me lashing out in anger. I've only been fighting them because I want them to make up!" the witch burst out in great heavy sobs and collapsed on her bed, wrapping herself up in a fuzzy wool fleece blanket.

John had never felt more uncomfortable. He didn't know what to do with a weeping female. He sat down beside her on her bed and tentatively patted her shoulder as she cried. "I never said it was your fault...." Suddenly he was enveloped in silk and tears as she flung herself into his arms, her head rested on his chest as she wept.

"They think I'm being silly. They say nothing will resolve the rift between them, but I know that Zara and Zin love each other really. We're sisters after all. And Zelkinane too; she may appear to be all brains and no heart, but she must have one if she writes all those wonderful stories and poems. I just want us all to get along. And what happens when I try to help? They send earthquakes to shift my riverbeds and blistering heat to dry them up. Why can't they just make up and make things go back to they way they were?" she clung to John's tunic and wriggled herself into his lap.

John wrapped the wool fleece around her, patting her back and trying to comfort her the best he could. "I know what you mean. My brothers and sisters used to fight all the time when we were children. I was the biggest, so I felt like it was my job to put things to rights. It's not easy trying to be the peacemaker.... uh....uhmm...." he stuttered.

"Zonnaliese." she supplied.

"Right, Zonnaliese. I thought it was my job to fix things. But they just thought I was being bossy, so they called me names and ignored whatever I said. And that hurt." John's eyes watered slightly at the memory.

"They always resort to name-calling. It's not fair." Zonnaliese sniffed.

"No it isn't." John agreed.

"And they get mad at you for meddling." Zonna's sobbing quieted some.

"They do. And when they get mad you feel like you've made everything worse." John's lip quivered, his chin dimpled.

"John?" Zonnaliese looked up into his big blue eyes. The memories of childhood arguments had brought him close to tears. "Ohhhh, it's okay to cry, John. It's all right. Crying makes everything better." Zonna stretched her fuzzy fleece over his huge shoulders and they rocked back and forth comforting each other.

"But men aren't supposed to cry. Especially big men like me!" John wiped away a stray tear with the back of his hand.

"That's not true. Just because you're big and tough on the outside doesn't mean you have to be hard on the inside. You can be just as soft as you like inside." Zonna picked up her silver hair brush and began to brush John's long blond hair.

"Really?" John asked, watching Zonna's large violet-blue eyes as she brushed his hair. Her mood had changed again and he wasn't sure what she was thinking.

"Of course, silly. A tree has tough bark on the outside, but it protects the soft green wood on the inside, doesn't it?" she asked. Putting down the brush and leaving the bed once again to pace the round room.

"What are we going to do about your sisters?" John tugged the fleecy blanket from his shoulders into his lap where Zonnaliese had sat.

"What are we going to do about my sisters?...." Zonna mused. She turned back to Little John with a mischievous grin. "We're going to go to Sherwood as Olwyn asked. And my sisters are going to find out they can't ignore me anymore. The only thing more dangerous than a water witch is an angry water witch."

"That's my girl!" John cheered. He felt like a leaf in the wind, buffeted by Zonnaliese's ever changing moods. The smile on her lips had reached her eyes and it smoldered with an emotion John recognized just in time as Zonna launched herself into his arms, sending them both sprawling in the silken bed.

"Should I be afraid of an angry water witch?" He asked. Once again he felt that little tug of fear at the edge of his mind. He didn't like being a witch's plaything.

Beneath the fall of her hair he felt her silent laughter. "Don't be afraid, Johnny. I won't let you drown." she said just before she kissed him.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dark storm clouds fought with a hazy sun the day the Outlaws returned to their camp in Sherwood with the four witches. Zindara rode on a great war horse, dressed in her armor and armed to the teeth, with her wolf and Tuck by her side. Zaranin drove a buckboard wagon with Marion's horse tied to the rear. Zelkinane rode a pure white horse alongside Robin, and Zonnaliese rode behind Little John, holding tightly to his waist. Electricity and tension were thick in the air as Zindara and Zaranin faced each other.

Before either could raise hand or steel Olwyn appeared in their midst.

"There will be no drawing of weapons of any kind or any use of magic during this meeting. To do so would defeat the purpose entirely." He raised his hands toward Zaranin and Zindara. Both women regarded the sorcerer and each other before taking a step backward. Olwyn waved his hand and a great round table appeared in the middle of Robin's pondering field.

"That's not.....THE round table,..... is it?" Robin asked Olwyn, gesturing to the very ornate and very old looking table.

Olwyn sighed. "I don't want any fighting to break out over who gets to sit at the head of a rectangular table."

When everyone was seated Olwyn looked around the table at the four witches and asked, "Would someone like to explain to me how all of this started?"

The sisters started talking all at once, yelling at each other and pointing fingers. Olwyn stood and silenced them. "One at a time please?"

"That one killed my Adam!" cried Zaranin, accusing Zindara. "She put ideas in his head that he could be a great warrior. He and another man were play fighting with pitchforks in the fields instead of tilling. Adam took a wrong step and ended up falling on his own pitchfork. It was all Zindara's doing!"

"Liar!" Zindara's voice boomed like thunder. "You poisoned my husband!

You enticed Ares to eat some of your fancy rich foods and it turned his stomach. When he was caught in a fight he was ill and weak and the enemy slaughtered him. Ares would have been victorious had you not slowed him down."

"Never mind that, the both of you are responsible for Argon's death." Zelkinane declared. "He was working on an invention whilst the two of you struck out against each other. An earth shake caused the machine to collapse upon him. He might have survived but the heat that day sapped his strength and he could not call out for help. Argon simply got in your way and you swept him out of it."

"You are all horrible wretched hags!" Zonnaliese screamed. She'd been calm and in control until the other three started yelling. "My Amarus went to you to console you in your grief and you murdered him out of sheer spite. You couldn't stand to see me happy while you mourned so you killed Amarus just to hurt me!" Zonna collapsed in Little John's lap, sobbing.

"Enough!" Olwyn shouted above them and silence reigned again. "Ladies, I feel for your loss, but there is something you seem to be overlooking here. Zindara, did Ares know for fact that Zaranin's food would make him sick?"

"He was a great warrior, like myself. He was conditioned to simple meals the same as I. Of course he knew. That is why Zara had to trick him into eating her cooking." Zindara snapped.

"HA! So much you know." Zaranin slapped her palm on the table. "When Ares passed by my cottage he smelled the strawberry tarts cooling. He came in for a visit and ate at least three tarts with cream. If he'd known they would make him sick then why did he eat them? I certainly didn't trick him into asking for seconds and thirds. You however are hardly blameless.

Where would my Adam get ideas about becoming a warrior? You put the thought in his head, that's where."

"Adam talked much with Ares and that is where he got his ideas. Adam asked Ares to give him some basic knowledge of fighting so he might defend you should it come down to that. I suppose Adam was practicing with that youth in the field, but the rutted and muddy terrain was difficult for two novice fighters and he simply fell of his own accord. I certainly never suggested that Adam attempt anything so foolish." Zin leaned backward in her chair.

"And what of Argon?" Olwyn asked. "Zelkinane, when did Argon build his machine?"

"It would have been August. He always built down on the southern end of the moor where the light was better, despite the proximity to Zindara's caves." Zel stated simply.

"And that would have put him directly in the path of the earthquakes Zaranin sent against Zindara. Not to mention that August is notoriously hot in the first place. Argon's death was an accident, nothing more." Olwyn looked kindly at the weeping witch in Little John's lap. "How did your Amarus die, Zonnaliese?"

"He was walking through the forest and was surrounded by brush fires..." the watery words leaked from beneath her long golden hair.

"Zindara did it." Zaranin interjected. Olwyn hushed her with a glance.

"He ran from the flames and was blinded by a windstorm that blew dust in his eyes...." Zonna sniffled.

"So it's Zelkinane's fault." Zindara muttered.

"And he didn't see where the earth had opened up beneath him and he fell into the crevasse and died."

"That would be Zaranin's doing." Zelkinane pointed out.

"I told him not to go...." Zonnaliese's voice became very small as she gathered a deep breath. All of a sudden she was on her feet, she pounded her fists on the table and a great crack of thunder rent through the meadow.

Raising her hands and voice to the sky Zonnaliese gathered a massive storm cloud overhead and lightning threatened to strike everyone dead where they sat.

Olwyn took his staff in his hand and thumped it in the very center of the table. A shockwave sent everyone reeling backwards in their seats. The four Outlaws watched in stunned silence. "As I said, I will not tolerate the use of magic in this conference. Now,..." he put down his staff and straightened his robes. "You all seem to be ignoring one very important fact."

"And what's that?" asked Tuck.

"Your husbands, ladies, did they not possess minds of their own and a free will?" The meadow became so quiet you could have heard a twig snap from the other side of the forest. "They were men of their own minds, who made their own decisions. Zonnaliese, you yourself said you told Amarus not to go when you knew he would be in danger. But he went anyway. Zaranin, you said you'd no prior knowledge of Adam's interest in fighting. Zelkinane, even though he knew your sisters were using magic against each other Argon chose to build his machine in a dangerous area. Zindara, Ares knew that food to which he was not accustomed might have an adverse affect on him; and no one could have predicted he would be attacked on his way home to you. All these deaths are attributable to circumstance and sheer misfortune. You could not have stopped it from happening."

Olwyn made wearily to sit in his seat, but Sean came running up from camp.

"Robin, Marion! Sir Guy and his soldiers are attacking the village of Arden. All the winter provisions are stored there, as well as the weapons we hid for emergencies. He's got a detatchment of Prince John's soldiers to help him. Robin, he's going to burn the village when he's done. There will be nothing left!" Sean was out of breath when he was done.

"Get every horse saddled. I want everyone armed as well as we can manage.

It's going to take an army to beat Gisbourne back." Robin was already on his way to his hut to grab his sword, bow and arrows. Shortly only Olwyn and the sisters were left in the meadow.

"What a coward attacks nearly defenseless farmers?" Zindara asked.

"And plots to starve them into submission?" Zaranin added.

"They'll be so afraid." Zonnaliese fretted.

"They'll need help, and lots of it." Zelkinane mused.

The four witches looked at each other. Electricity once again coursed through the air.

End of Chapter Two

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