For what sort of magic works without payment? Says the Witch. Something MUST be given in return, says the warlock. An equivalent exchange must be made, says the Wizard. I must have something to offer the gods when I meet them, says the Shaman.
There must be a price.
Is that not how it has worked since time immemorial?
There are not houses on the plains, nor fields of wheat nor even barley. The earth is too hard. In the dawning of the world, the plains are where the horses of God first touched the earth, and with their mighty feet they stamped the earth down until it was hard like stone. So say the people of the plains, who run their horses far and wide across the earth, and ride them to the south to shoot arrows at the soft people. The people of the plains say that the southern people are made of butter, and fall apart when you touch them. They're a tough people, those horsemen, and they know it.
Alas, there are some things that toughness cannot handle.
The Witch heard a thumping at the flap of her tent. She put down the butter she'd been churning and rose to meet her visitor. Visitors were not to be ignored -- few among her people ever came to call upon her, for her powers made them uneasy, as did her insistence upon roaming the edge of the great southern desert when everyone else stuck to the greener grass up north. Those who sought her services usually did so only in great need.
She opened the tent-flap, and saw before her a handsome woman, tall and proud, who was, from the looks of it, extremely lucky that her tribe had come to within walking distance of the Witch's tent. For the woman's left arm was covered in blotches, black and purple, and it hung limply by her side. A wound on her upper arm had been bound, for what little good it did. The whole mess smelled sweetly horrible.
"Let me guess," said the Witch, "You got in a fight."
"I did," said the woman. "But I've never seen a wound turn into -- this."
"Did you fall in the mud as well?"
"What does that -- yes, yes I did."
"Ah. I've seen this before. Dirt in an open wound. Whoever bound your arm must have forgot to clean it up first. Oh, this is going to be tricky. This will take all my skill, and a steep price, if you want to save the arm and yourself."
"Whatever price you name, I can hardly turn it down," said the woman, "Unless you ask for what I cannot give. Then I would lose the arm. Perhaps you would be willing to lower the price?"
"An equivalent exchange must be made," said the Witch, "And if I am to save your life I must have a life in return. You must give me your firstborn child."
"Oh!" said the the woman. Her face fell, in the way only that of a doomed warrior can. "I cannot pay that, Witch of the Southern Sands, I cannot...I have no children. Name anything else -- jewelry, finest mares, protection from raiders, all this I can promise, but I have no children."
"Jewelry I need not," said the Witch, "and horses I have in plenty. And I do not fear raiders, for they fear me. No, my dear, I must have the child. Of course...you could promise me the first child you bear, and that would be the same, for our purposes."
"Our?" The woman raised an eyebrow.
"Mine, I mean. Yours. Both of -- I mean we both have the same goal. Um -- what's your name anyway?"
"Turan. I promise you the first child I bear, Witch. Now, you just fix this arm up and maybe someday you'll have your child. Deal?"
A year passed, in which the Witch rode her trusty horses along the edge of the desert, drawing the border between the grassy plains of her people and the windswept sand of the south, urging the Desert God to remain where he was for another year, if he would be so kind.
And the Witch came to the same place she had been in last year, when Turan had called upon her. And there in the distance was a great camp. Perhaps Turan's. Perhaps she'd had her child by now. Perhaps it was time for Turan to pay up. And there was plenty of time for the Witch to visit, before she had to get back to her bordering work.
She rode into the camp, asking after a woman named Turan. She was immediately pointed to a large crowd, where people were cheering and yelling Turan's name. The Witch couldn't see over the crowd, but the moment she touched someone's shoulder to push them aside, they saw her and stepped away. She quickly made her way to the center, where Turan and some unfortunate fellow were grappling. Well. Had been. The fellow was pretty much pinned by this point.
A large man stepped into the ring. "That's enough, daughter," he said. "Enough! You've got him down."
Turan rose, and the fellow scurried out of the ring. The big man laughed and clapped Turan on the back. "Fine work," he said, "And nary a man has bested you yet, or you'd be married and making sons by now, eh?"
"Perhaps so," said Turan, "But each loser pays with horses. Do you want another mouth to feed, or do you want something that can carry armor and arrows and tent poles?"
The big man laughed again. "An excellent point! I much as I would be overjoyed to see you bear sons, I will be sad to see the horses stop coming."
"I would be overjoyed as well," said the Witch, "considering she promised me her first-born."
At this, the crowd fell silent.
The big man scowled at the Witch. "You," he said, "are hardly welcome among my people. And you consort with my daughter?"
"It was that or lose the arm," said Turan. "Besides, if I'm supposed to have a lot of children like you say then giving up the first one won't be an imposition. No sweat."
"But to seek the services of the Witch -- "
"I won't ask her for any more favors once our deal is completed," said Turan. "You have my word."
The Witch snorted, and strode back through the crowd, which parted before her. It was good to know that her reputation among these people was secure.
But as she rode back to the desert's edge, she couldn't help but feel a little hurt.
A year passed, and the Witch rode along the edge of the desert, drawing the boundary between sand and grass once more. As she rode, she urged the Horse God to refrain from going to war against the desert, for there were many innocent creatures within who would suffer if he brought his wrath upon the sand. Well. Most of them were innocent. The acid-spitting worms could fall under thundering hooves for all the good they did anyone.
One day the Witch saw a mighty column of dust in the distance. From the south. THAT was unusual. She donned her thick leather glove and whistled, and a great golden eagle alighted upon her wrist. "Well-met, Temu," she whispered, "and once more I would borrow your eyes, if you would be so kind. There is a caravan to the south that needs watching. Go."
As the eagle rose in a storm of wings, the Witch's sight rose with it, and as the eagle soared towards the caravan, the nature of the travelers became clear. This was a vast host of men, carts rolling, camels braying, each man wearing light armor and carrying sword and spear openly. An army. The first in thirty years -- the Witch was not old enough to have even seen the last one, but her mother had told her of days in which such armies would come north through the desert every year, trying to fight, or make a show of force, at least. Her people had not raided the south for many years, and so the armies of the south had left them alone.
But now the southerners were coming up north without provocation. Indeed it seemed as though simple retaliation was not the reason for their journey -- the dust of their passage spanned the horizon, and their ranks were innumerable. They were coming to conquer.
And the Earth God had not stopped them, nor thinned their ranks. Perhaps this was even his doing? Who knew. But he himself was not visible. This was a proxy battle. And who to represent the Horse God?
The Witch bade the eagle turn, and soar towards the northern horizon, where a camp sat. The Witch recognized those tents. It was Turan's tent again.
She bade the eagle alight upon the top of the largest tent, and cry out, "The Southerners are coming! The southerners approach, in vast numbers like you have never seen! Send riders! Gather your greatest forces and prepare for battle! Where is Turan? Come out, Turan!"
Turan burst out of the tent, and squinted in the sunlight as she looked up at the eagle. "What is it you want of me, eagle? How do you know my name?"
"I want you to be aware that there's an army headed your way, that's all. Oh, and when are you going to have children?"
Turan snorted. "I should have known it was you, Witch. And my situation has not changed since last year, and I have more horses than before. I am afraid you will have to be disappointed again."
The tent flapped open again, and the big man stomped out. "You again," he said, pointing at the eagle. "I told you you weren't welcome! Asking such things of my daughter, I tell you -- "
"I have warned your people of the coming threat," said the Witch. "Heed me, or lose territory and lives. Oh, and Turan, if you ever get the chance, come visit me again. I like seeing your face."
With that, the eagle arose in a storm of wings.
The Armies of the south should have known that they were going to be harassed by horse archers.
What they could not have known was that they were going to be harassed by as many horse archers as the plains could hold. Nor, indeed, that the charge would be led by a roaring woman on horseback. Nor, indeed, that no arrow would strike her, though it be loosed at shorter range than one would stand for target practice. That was the Witch's doing, as she rode close by Turan's side.
What the Witch had not anticipated was that Turan would ride straight up to the enemy's square formation, toss soldiers out of the way, dash towards the enemy commander, yank him right off his horse, and drag him screaming back to her own ranks. There was no blessing from the Witch involved in that.
Nor did the Witch anticipate that Turan would succeed in capturing two more generals.
The morale of the enemy foot soldiers broke, after they lost their third general, and they began to retreat. Then to rout. And run. Not that all of them made it. Many were struck down in their flight by a well-placed arrow. As the eagle soared above the battlefield, the Witch saw the ranks of the footsoldiers thin, slowly. In the headlong retreat, many carts and camels were left behind. Not all of the enemy were going to make it back to their homes on the other side of the desert. If the worms didn't see to it, thirst would.
The Witch would have to ride far into the desert to find all of the bodies, if she wanted to give them a proper sky burial. Later, of course. There were plenty of bodies here and now that needed the same ritual. All of them of the enemy soldiers. Whatever horse-archer had fallen had been removed from the battlefield as the horsemen departed.
There was only the Witch and Turan left.
"I am surprised," said Turan. "You chose to ride with the army of a people who reject you. And you were by my side the whole time. Why?"
"I could hardly let you die before you fulfill your promise, now could I? Who knows, perhaps the Earth God brought the Southerners up to us because there is an imbalance in the spirit world. Perhaps it will get worse the longer you fail to -- "
"Oh, please. I doubt any of the Gods care."
Turan smiled. "Any other reasons you stuck by me?"
"Well, I'd hate to miss seeing your face." The Witch dismounted, and set to work placing the bodies into whatever cart still had an ox attached. Which, as it happened, was none. They'd gone screaming into the desert along with the soldiers.
"What are you doing?" said Turan.
"Preparing these bodies for the funeral," said the Witch. "Sky burial. You know how it is. Got to get these bodies to the mountains. I mean, look." She gestured to the plain, which was strewn with bodies far and wide. "Someone has to mourn the dead."
"But they are the enemy."
"What else could I do?" said the Witch. "I must appease the Horses of the Sky if there is to be any rain at all in this dry land. I must do a sky burial for whatever corpse I find out here. And, you know, I think these poor young fellows would appreciate knowing that someone cares about them. They were the enemy. Now they're just dead. No sense making distinctions. The Horse God doesn't, you know. She just wants funerals to be done with proper ceremony and dignity. Help me out, will you? There's plenty of bodies here, and if I have to do all of them it's going to take forever.
"But -- "
"Come on. You want rain, don't you?"
"I've no idea what that is," said Turan, straight-faced. "Can you eat it?"
"You're joking. I've never heard you joke."
Turan grinned. "Ah, well. You hardly know me, Witch."
They spent the rest of the day riding around, gathering bodies for the cart. The cart was easy for her horse to pull at first -- hardly tougher than a Yurt wagon. But the horses started to pant heavily as the bodies piled higher and higher. Turan looked at the horses, then at the cart, then at the ground. She knelt and slapped her palms upon the earth, and whispered something. Something huge groaned far beneath her feet, and the earth shook for a few seconds. She unhitched the horses and hitched herself up to the cart.
"What are you doing?" said the Witch. "What did you do?"
"Let's just say you're not the only person I ask favors from," said Turan. "Now, I think that's all the bodies. Let's get going."
They turned northwest as the sun began to set, and set out for the mountains.
Two days passed. Each day the Witch asked Turan why she had not yet married. But Turan remained silent.
Mid-morning on the third day, they reached the top of a low mountain. They began to lay the bodies out.
"Thrice I ask," said the Witch, "why do you keep refusing -- "
"None can best me in wrestling," said Turan. "How could I bring any man to my bed if he cannot best me in wrestling? I would hate to break him."
"Well," said the Witch, "What if I were to wrestle you and win?"
Turan blinked for a few seconds, then laughed. "You? I would snap you like a twig, Witch. Unless you used your magic to achieve victory."
"Well, if I did it would be win-win, wouldn't it? If you win, you could say to your tribe that you bested the Witch of the Southern Desert, and if I win, I get to have you."
"That's...hm." Turan stopped walking. "What would my father say? What would my people say? That I had taken up with the Witch of the Desert Edge? You know how they feel about you."
The Witch smiled. "Can you resist the challenge, though? Have you ever been able to resist a challenge?"
"I feel like I ought to be able to say no for once. Ah, maybe next time. Come on. We'll do a proper funeral at the top of the mountains and then we shall see who is the victor."
They waited three full days, until the last of the vultures had gone and the bodies had been picked clean. Then the Witch waited three more days as Turan gathered the bones into a great pile.
The Witch tilted her head. "What will you do with that pile?"
"I'm not sure," said Turan. "Leave it to become the peak of the mountain, I suppose. But first we shall give one final honor to the dead, and have our wrestling match before their bones. Come. Let us get this over with. You call upon your god, and I will call upon mine." She crouched and slapped the ground. There was a great rumbling in the earth.
The Witch lit her incense and took up a drum, and pounded upon it, calling on the Horse God to lend her strength in battle. There was a great rush of wind and the clouds overhead began to fly across the sky, as fast as they would in a blizzard. The wind did not howl, so much as bray with the sound of a thousand stallions.
A lone traveler at the foot of the mountains would have seen an occurrence at the peak that, being so far away, he could not fully believe. It almost looked as though the stones themselves had formed into a tall figure, who was grappling with a white mass that looked like a cloud. They had seized each other's arms and were locked in a struggle, each attempting to push the other over, and yet, for all they twisted this way and that, for all the stone figure bent backward or the cloud bent sideways, no pair of feet moved an inch. The earth was trembling and the wind was howling, and the snow was beginning to fall as rocks tumbled down the mountain. The traveler grabbed his horses and hurried on.
Upon the mountain, neither Turan or the Witch were fully aware of how they appeared to the plains below. Only that it had been the better part of a day and, for all that they had struggled to topple each other, neither had managed to even force their opponent to take a step back.
Then at last the Witch yielded. Turan seized the opportunity and pushed the Witch further.
But it was a trick. The Witch grabbed Turan by the waist and, using the momentum that Turan herself was providing, bent backwards, and backwards, and backwards, and over, bringing Turan with her, in an arc that promised to smash Turan's head right into the earth.
But Turan, with a surge of will and strength, broke out of the Witch's hold and placed her feet firmly on the earth again. The Witch was left with her own momentum, which toppled her backwards, and down onto the earth.
And that was the match.
"It seems you have won," said the Witch. "I must give you one of my horses, and pledge to never ask for your hand again."
Turan smirked. "I don't know. I think you bested yourself there."
"You would be lenient with me?"
"I'll ask for a horse if you wish to give it. But I say we were matched both in strength and cleverness. The Earth God cannot beat the Horse God, it seems, not by a direct contest of will." Turan turned to the pile of bones, which had since tumbled down into a wide mess. "I will clean this up and then go back to my people, and who knows, perhaps one of them will best me. I do need to make that first-born child for you anyway."
"It's not as though your arm is going to shrivel up and fall off if you don't have children. The promise was enough."
"Witch, you know me well enough by now to know that I do as I will."
And the Witch sat there in front of her tent, as for three full days, Turan re-built the heap of bones. The Witch beat upon her drum and the wind howled in honor of the dead. The earth grumbled and groaned.
A year passed, and the Witch rode her horses along the edge of the desert, praying to the Horse God to bring the winds of rain. Even a dry land needs rain once in a while so that it does not become barren.
One day when there were no clouds in the sky, the Witch sat in front of her tent, tapping a beat upon her drum that her horses danced to.
And out of the north rode a lone figure with a familiar bearing. Well, somewhat lone. She had brought a thousand horses with her.
As Turan rode up to the Witch's tent, the Witch could see that her friend was great with child.
"Well," said the Witch, "I gave you one horse. What is this? Have you come to give me a thousand in return? But you look like you have been crying. Tell me, what has happened to lead you here with all the horses you have ever earned?"
"Let's just say, my people did not appreciate it when they learned I'd thrown that last match." Turan dismounted, slightly less nimble than usual.
"And what happened to the man who you let win?"
Turan scowled. "He does not figure."
"And you have come to me?"
"Who else could I turn to? It's a lonely life out on the plains with naught but horses for company."
"I enjoy talking to them from time to time."
"Do they talk back?"
The Witch smirked. "Stay here for a while and find out. You'll need my help to deliver your child anyway."
"I thought it was your child."
"I did promise the child to you."
"Who says it only has to be my child, though? If you stick around here, we could raise the child together."
Turan grinned. "Should we wrestle again, then? To see if I stick around forever?"
"Promise not to throw the match this time."
There were about three thousand witnesses to the rematch between Turan and the Witch. Most of them were horses belonging to the people Turan had formerly called her tribe. A good number of them were the masters of these horses. In the far distance of the plains, horse and rider could see a massive figure made of earth locked in struggle with a mass of cloud that appeared to have arms and legs.
The horses belonging to Turan got a much better view, and can tell you more about what actually happened. But you have to figure out how to ask them, and the Witch won't tell you how.
The child sitting upon the back of one of these horses also got a good view. You could ask, if you could ever catch up to them. Somehow that young rider is always far ahead of you, no matter how hard you drive your horse.
You could also ask Turan. But you've heard many stories about her, even as you sit in your city full of soft people in your soft little land, and you do not dare to approach her.
The heavenly court knows the whole story. Both stories. The Horse God and the Earth God have conflicting versions.
What is the truth?
Along the edge of the desert ride Turan and the Witch, and their child far ahead of them, praying for peace between the desert and the grass.
The boundary is more solid than it used to be.
Perhaps the two have come up with something better than an equivalent exchange.