For the twenty-sixth time, the Witch of Haxe breathed blue light into her message ball and hoped.
“I have won the hoard of the Goblin of Wingmoor in fair combat. Blessings on your reign, my king, and expect this addition to your coffers by the equinox.”
So far, she had killed fourteen monsters, laid eight ghosts, cured two plagues, and resolved one blight that turned out to be a bad water supply. Outright bribery was a new tactic.
“How does it work?” the Goblin of Wingmoor asked.
They were canted to one side, a loaded tray pressed against their waist.
“Give me that,” the witch said. “You should’ve had me make the tea.”
The goblin grinned, a wide line of pointy teeth.
“If I’m to be caring for myself one-handed while this shoulder heals, best to get started while there’s still help within shouting distance.”
Over tea, she described the message ball–a thin globe of white sapphire infused with an echo, location-bonded to herself and the palace, capable of speaking one to the other in short bursts without a time delay. The goblin touched it gingerly with two dark claws and asked technical questions of a type she hadn’t thought about in years.
She was halfway through the very welcome cup of tea and about to compliment the goblin on their fine blackberry jam when the message ball glowed green.
“We thank you for your service to our kingdom and anticipate news of your honorable death.”
As always, the king’s voice was cold, dispassionate–that the words were identical each time made the witch wonder whether he had configured some method of using the same message, time and again. If so, it was probably a flunky receiving her reports.
As always, the message killed her appetite.
“What a curious thing,” the goblin said. “Why would anyone create such an object and then use it only to be rude?”
The witch choked on her tea, and coughing made her bruised ribs smart, which prompted a couple of tears that, once started, continued in a rush while the goblin gazed at her. She couldn’t read their round, granite-colored face well enough to guess their expression, but they handed her a handkerchief when she was done.
And just think, barely two candlemarks earlier, she had been beating them half to death.
“Why am I here?” she blurted.
The goblin laughed, a hissing wheeze.
“It has been long since I had interesting company, and longer still since I had a worthy adversary. You fought honorably, so it is my honor to see you away with bandaged wounds, a full belly, and clean clothes.”
The witch shook her head.
“You don’t seem to mind that I broke your shoulder and took your hoard.”
“Do not neglect my sprained ankle and the earrings you ripped out.”
The goblin shrugged their good shoulder.
“The wounds will heal. And my life is long. Before your impolite lord’s heir vacates the throne, I will have amassed another hoard. But a good fight and a new conversation; those are rarities.”
For conversation, at least, the witch could say the same.
The goblin lifted the message ball in one six-fingered hand. “Why does your king wish for your death but not give it himself?”
Why kept her up at night, and had for years, though she knew the answer to this part.
“They say it’s bad luck to kill an honor-bound witch,” she said, and the goblin nodded. “No matter how much her involvement in palace matters bothered everyone. Almost everyone.”
The goblin blinked slowly, like a cat.
“Oh! Are you, then, why the king marries so late?”
“Thirty-five is not-”- she gritted, then,
“Yes,” to the goblin’s smile.
“Oh dear, you do carry trouble in your rucksack.”
She accepted the offer of a night’s pause in exchange for another couple rounds of healing on the goblin‘s shoulder. After a night’s sleep in a bed free of vermin and some breakfast, the sting of another refusal had faded into the background.
“I wonder whether the king’s message is less direct than you assume,” the goblin said when she shouldered her pack mid-morning.
What possible less-direct meaning could a wish for her death possibly have?
“Think on it, honored enemy,” the goblin said, ensuring that she left their property with her eyes rolling.
She returned to her wandering. She’d kept a good supply of the more portable bits of the goblin’s hoard, and she was past making herself tramp miserably through the muddy countryside in self-punishment, so mostly she wore herself out convincing the road to speed her along between towns and nursed her headaches afterward at slightly nicer inns.
The third town she visited, two six-days later, was festooned in pink and yellow decorations and magically reproduced drawings from which she averted her eyes.
“Royal wedding!” the innkeeper said. “This is too long coming, bless their union.”
The witch smiled the smile she had carefully practiced to pull out in front of snide ministers. She wouldn’t actively curse their union, anyhow. Even though she could.
Instead, she spent the three days of the king’s wedding festival as drunk as she could maintain without blacking out, tucked into a back corner of the common room, lifting her mug and yelling vowels at every toast. Her grimace passed for enough of a smile that no one bothered her. By the time she started weeping into her beer, everyone else was too drunk to notice.
The bathhouse was full of fellow sufferers wishing for the kind release of death from their hangovers on the fourth morning. The witch sweated and hummed a tune that carried across the tubs and through the steam to quiet roiling bellies and ease sore heads. The relief of the townsfolk rebounded on her, so that she could stretch and stand straight, and possibly even face a meal before she set off.
At the fourth town, she heard rumors of trouble with livestock in the outlying houses and tramped dutifully out to see.
Wouldn’t it just figure that the trouble would be an undead, stinking mess in the center of a bog?
With every step, the mud sucked at her boots, or spilled over the top to leak cold and slimy around her calves. She smelled the wight before she saw it–a stink of rot so heavy that it overcame the general stench of old mud and composting vegetation.
The wight itself might’ve died in the bog, its skin the same reddish tea color as the water around them. Or, she didn’t want to think, the same as the king’s hair. The witch gritted her teeth so hard that they creaked.
The wight opened its mouth in what was maybe meant to be a scream but came out as a harsh whisper. It stumbled toward her, faster than she could move in the sticky mud.
A problem with dead things was that their vulnerability depended on a huge set of variables. The witch, being no necromancer and having been deprived of the royal library for three years, had to (as per usual) wing it and hope for the best. She had five spelled weapons and enough bitterness to populate a crowd. Those would have to do.
Her knife, sealed to Saint Something of Something (who could remember in the middle of a fight?), dug into the wight’s chest just fine, but without effect. Meanwhile, the wight’s nails raked down the witch’s arm hard enough to mar leather and to draw blood at her wrist. The witch stepped back and to the side as the wight snapped its teeth toward her neck. She pulled an old trick learned from the palace master-at-arms and grabbed the wight’s outstretched arm as she spun, jerking down into a crouch and a roll.
The wight’s arm ripped, along with what was left of its clothing on that side. The witch came up out of the mud dripping and with the bitter taste of it in her mouth, but the wight’s arm flopped at its side, not quite useless but slower than its left. The wight wheezed at her again, rushed.
Wights weren’t smart, but they were extremely hard to kill, being already dead. The stubbornness that kept them in the living world was reflected in the tenacity with which they pursued whatever prey caught in the green spirit-fire that passed for eyes. Having engaged it, the witch could either kill it or contain it, otherwise it would follow her over the edge of the world.
The ensouled dagger was likewise useless.
What are you trying to achieve with this nonsense, it spat into her brain when she shoved it through the wight’s abdomen.
Nothing, apparently, other than a harsh red ring around her wrist from the wight’s hand.
The wight chased her through several puddles and almost caught her twice while she argued with the dagger until it would go back into its scabbard.
I’ll drink your blood one day, it snarled when she finally lined it up.
“Shut up, darling, Mommy’s working right now.”
The dagger was so offended that it went into the scabbard without further complaint.
On one patch of dryish ground, the witch was able to turn and convince the mud to rise up around the wight’s legs and solidify. It hissed and waved its arms around for several minutes while she put her hands on her thighs and caught her breath.
“You’re a real pain, you know that?” the witch said once her breath evened out.
The wight wheezed and showed even more broken teeth. The mud had been willing to solidify, but wasn’t too keen on fighting against the wight’s struggles. It would be free any flicker now.
So. Holy knife, no good. Cursed dagger, likewise. Her demon-trapping net would only work if it were an actual demon animating the wight, but if that were the case it’d be smarter and even more dangerous. And she didn’t have time to string her bow.
She hated using the little hook. Or, rather, re-magicking the little hook once she’d used it. But it was as likely to work as anything else, as long as the target was male. And in a couple of weeks she could recharge the thing with the right kind of blood.
She dug the hook out of her pack as the wight finally wriggled free of the mud. It was fast and angry, but it wasn’t smart enough to have much variety in its attack pattern, and the witch had seen enough. Duck the flopping right arm, reel back from the left, and she had room to punch in under its armpit with the hook. If this didn’t work, then she’d have to dismember it.
The wight paused. Its leathery, half-rotted skin made much expression impossible, but she thought she could read disgust in the lifting of its upper lip. The witch grinned and shrugged, then tugged the hook downward, ripping through the wight’s chest almost to its waist. It pulled at her with its good arm, pressing against her still-healing ribs until her eyes watered.
The wight must’ve been a man when it was alive. Its mouth opened in another rattling exhale, and the green spirit fires went out.
With two sore arms, both bleeding at the wrist, and re-injured ribs, it took the witch far longer than she wanted to pull the wight to pieces, separate them, and burn them. By the time she was done, the sun was well below the surrounding trees, and she was too tired and hurt to make any magical aid.
She limped back to the road. Backwards lay the village she had just saved from its disgusting neighbor. Ahead lay forest – dark and unknown, but with no one who would sneer at her or ask inconvenient questions. As tired as she was, a quiet fire under a tree sounded better.
Despite the dark, and despite the way each step dragged worse than the last, the witch found fault with every moss-covered tree root. Trudging was a habit, and she indulged it, through half-lidded eyes and without a single thought in her brain. She was so zoned out that they almost missed the side road.
Three steps past the increased darkness, the witch blinked and registered what she had seen. There was magic down that trail, something sleepy, as if it hadn’t been used in a long time. But it carried no flavor of malice or violence. If anything, it felt lonely.
Maybe two lonely magical beings could help one another out.
Having a potential destination put a little energy in the witch’s step, despite the greater darkness of the trail, with trees bending close on either side. It wasn’t far, not even a quarter of a mark, until she discovered the end of the trail and the steps of a house.
When she laid her hand on the third step, the witch learned that it was the house itself that was magic and lonely, stuck out in this forest, long abandoned.
Maybe it didn’t quite actually ask her in, but it made itself clear. Inside, the house was too dark for her light to reach more than half a pace around her, and the air moved such that she knew there were missing windows and probably holes in the roof. Still, even imperfect protection was better than a swamp or an exposed camp. This deep in the forest, the witch decided to trust this lonely old house. She unrolled her blankets in one solid-seeming corner, had a strongly worded conversation with her wounds, and cast herself into a two-days’ sleep to let them heal.
Only the pressing need to rid herself of water and put some back again was enough to make the witch move through the stiffness of two days lying still on a wood floor. A wounded body with forty summers on it deserved a softer bed.
By the time she had cleared the worst of the cobwebs out of the privy with a stick and encouraged the well pulley to let go of its rust and sleepiness and allow her to haul up a bucket of water, the witch felt a little less like she creaked every time she moved. The well water was frigid but sweetly metallic. After drinking, she dunked her head in it, grunting at the cold but glad to wake up. When she thanked the well, the pulley shed even more of its rusty coating.
The house was so glad to have a visitor that it felt like an embrace walking from room to room. Only one front room, furnished with a long table and hooks suspended from the ceiling like a stillroom, was in bad shape, owing to a window being open and stuck. The floor was strewn with leaves and pine needles, and various creatures had obviously come in to look around and knock down bottles of herbs and bark.
The witch found candle stubs in one of the table drawers and used one to rub the window frame. Between that and some flattery to its craftmanship, the wood consented to remember its former self, pores drawing in until the witch could lower the window shut. By the time she finished picking through the debris for still-intact bottles and sweeping the rest of the trash onto the porch, the witch could feel the house nearly thrumming with a question, and the front door trembled with the house’s urge to slam it shut.
“You’re very good,” she said with one hand on the wall.
In the small back bedroom she found the skeleton of a cat curled up on the end of the bed, and under the quilt, a small pile of yellowish, brimstone-scented powder that was the telltale sign of a dead witch. So there was the house’s mystery solved.
She returned to the still room – or, more likely, spell room – for one of the small boxes on the floor, emptied it, and carried it to the bedroom.
“Just a little longer,” she said to the cat’s bones. “Stick together for me, will you? And then we’ll get you where you need to go.”
She gathered the bones as gently as she could in her hands, and they cooperated, drooping like a living cat would, but hanging together long enough for her to set them in the box in the same curled-up shape. She bundled up the sheet – a shame to lose an entire sheet, but it would be rude if she left behind any of the dead witch. She piled the sheet on top of the bones and set the box in the stillroom, in the sun.
Whatever had happened to the witch had been quiet. There were still dried-up strings of onions and garlic braids hanging in the kitchen, and the wood pile in the back, if modest, was undisturbed. The witch passed a pleasant day, idly straightening dusty objects, nibbling at the food from her pack, and napping.
The honor that bound her was to solve magical problems. As she lay on her back on the front porch, head pillowed on her rolled-up blanket while the treetops swung back and forth, singing of wind and the dusk to come, she built the puzzle in her mind: twenty-six identical messages, the ache in her ribs and arms from her still-healing wounds. Broadwing Moor, and her “honored enemy” (still a thing to smile over) four days of magical walking away if she went in a straight line, and that little village half a day’s walk. The capital city as far away as she could get and still be inside the border. This lonely house, half-alive with all the years of magic done inside it.
Witches’ houses went bad, if left empty too long. Already this house had been lonely enough to throb on the forest road, enough to tug at the heart of a traveler, if not yet ready to eat one. If she weren’t going to stay, solving the problem meant she’d have to burn it. This eager little house, tucked up under the trees, wanting only to have an occupant.
Her vow bound her to rid the kingdom of magical threats. Did that vow stretch so far as one semi-aware house?
While there was still light in the sky, the witch rolled to her feet, grunting only once with the pain of it, and made a closer exploration. In the stillroom, she found a set of simply-bound notebooks safe inside a cabinet. The dead witch hadn’t been particularly educated or bright, but she had been meticulous, with a talent for drawing plants true to life. Her lifelong records of local plant life and the successes of various spells would make for years of winter reading and experimentation. The witch missed the royal library with a visceral pang, but this…Oh, the robed and wigged men at the palace would laugh at it, but here was one witch’s personal lifetime of study, cut off before it was completed.
In the kitchen, crocks of preserved vegetables crowded one cabinet, and bottles of homemade wine another. She took a bottle labeled “Blackberry Wine” in the dead witch’s clumsy hand to the fireplace in the front room. She stuck her head up into the flue, knocked out the old birds’ nest, and laid a fire from the wood pile out back. She placed the sheet on top of the logs, and the cat bones on top of that, then sprinkled the lot with a bit of the wine and drank deeply. The wine was as sweet as jam, but with a strong kick that promised a good burning.
When the room was fully dark, the witch spoke to the logs in front of her of the sun and heat until they smoldered, then flamed. The scent of resin, blackberries, and sulfur rolled out toward her with the heat while she talked about rest, endings, quiet – the usual prayer for a witch to let go of the world and move to the next one without taking any last sacrifices with her.
The sheet shifted as it burned.
“It won’t get lost,” the witch said. “I’ll take care of your work.”
So she was stuck now–her honor would require her to at least care for the notebooks with her life.
A vague face formed in the smoke, elderly and frowning.
“I promise,” the witch said. “I see where you were going. I know it’s important. I’ll keep trying.”
The face shifted, as if in a nod, and dissipated as the sheet fell to ash. She felt the dead witch’s spirit briefly, stubborn and strong, but tired, and then it was gone.
The cat bones shifted on top of the logs, but instead of tumbling apart, they contracted, then stretched, just like a living cat. The witch sat up straighter as a four-footed shape expanded past the limits of the bones, shimmering in the colors of fire. The bones collapsed, leaving the fiery cat shape behind.
The fire-cat arched its back, then stretched its paws in front, slightly out of the fire.
“Oh, kitty,” the witch said. “Don’t you want to go? It’s okay to go.”
The fire-cat blinked orange eyes.
“Kitty,” the witch said, “it’s all right. I would go, if I were you.”
The cat flicked its tail and blinked again in clear ghost-cat disgust. It stepped out of the fire, delicate as a whisper, and with the last of the warmth it had used to make itself, rubbed its face against her outstretched hand, then faded.
The witch slumped, breathing past the lump in her throat. She could feel the ghost-cat sitting next to her – a mental impression of feline patience, tail wrapped demurely over paws. The cat might be patient, but the house rattled around her. Without even the remains of its former master, the house would certainly go bad now, if she chose to simply take the notebooks and leave.
A cold, unseen head bumped her knee.
“Oof,” the witch said. “All right. We’ll see how it goes.”
Her vow might not accept this arrangement. After a week, a month, a year, it might propel her toward more monsters.
A chill wound sunwise around one ankle, widdershins around the other. The witch laughed.
Or, this might be enough, drafty and dusty as it was. What had the past three years brought her? Mud, exhaustion, and the kinds of wounds that let her foretell the weather without even asking the trees. Here, anyway, was a place to land.
She dug the message ball out of her pack and carried it to the dark little larder, hearing footsteps behind her. She breathed on the glass, and watched it glow blue.
“I inform his majesty of my honorable death,” she said, not even bothering to make herself sound on the edge of expiration. “May his reign flourish in my absence.”
She wiped the one teardrop off the glass with her sleeve and tucked the ball up in the back of the topmost shelf. She didn’t need to hear the response again. Her word was her honor: as far as the palace was concerned now, she was dead.
On the porch, she sketched her heart’s name with her thumb onto the lintel of the front door and felt the house settle. Wind might knock shingles off the roof, and nothing would get her firewood but the labor of her two hands, but no magical thing could enter the house now without her invitation. The house had its task.
The witch brought one of the old notebooks in front of the fire, with an old, greasy pencil from the stillroom. She had lists to make, of everything she needed to make the house hers and comfortable. All the things that would make it possible to stay.