There is a narrow path carved into the dense wall of trees that forms the western boundary of the witch-wood. There is no gentle buildup, no easy transition between the lonesome, sparsely wooded plains and the looming oppression of the thick-set forest. The tall trees stand close together, trunks nearly touching, roots and branches tangled like a single, many-limbed organism. There is a feeling here and not a pleasant one, as if the trees stare into the souls of those who dare pass this way.
There are two such souls now, standing just a step away from where the trees part and staring into the all-encompassing black. The sun is setting behind them, casting a singular shadow that stretches towards the path until it is abruptly swallowed by the darkness of the trees. One of them is tall, a young woman whose face is twisted into an uncertain expression. The other is smaller, a child of perhaps ten years, whose eyes dart nervously between the trees and her companion.
“It just really does not feel natural,” the woman says suddenly, chewing on an errant fingernail.
“Thank goodness,” replies the girl, her shoulders slumping as she releases her held breath. “I was hoping it wasn’t my imagination.”
“And we really have to go in there?” The older one asks, scuffing the toe of her boot against the hard-packed dirt.
“That is entirely up to you,” the girl replies. “If you want to do what you set out to do, we must go in, but I cannot force you.”
The woman sighs. “No, you’re right. We’ve come all this way, and I don’t wish to inconvenience you more than I have already.”
“It is not an inconvenience,” the girl says softly, “but I take your meaning. Are we going to go in?”
“We shall,” the woman murmurs. “Stay close to me, though I doubt we will encounter any others. We didn’t the last time we were here.” She takes a tentative step towards the trees, waits, then leaps forward on the path so that she is well and truly inside the witch-wood.
“Things might have gone very differently if we had,” the girl replies, her expression sad as she follows closely. “But I suppose there’s no point dwelling on the past.” She pauses and looks up into the thick canopy above. “It’s curious how it seems so much less imposing once you’re fully inside the woods.”
“I imagine that’s because we no longer have the sparse plains to compare them to,” the other says, carefully picking her way one foot after the other along the narrow path, “which is something you may want to consider as we journey farther in. Watch that bit there, Selune, there’s a root sticking up.”
“Thank you,” the girl called Selune says, gingerly stepping over the root. “For the warning, and for undertaking this task. I know you don’t want to.”
The woman looks down at the girl. “And you’re sure this is what you want?” she asks, her voice unsteady.
“Yes,” Selune replies. She sounds weary, older than the years on her face. “I love you, Seta, but it’s time. Neither of us can move on as things stand, and we both need to.”
“I’m not sure what I’ll do without you,” the taller one, Seta, replies with a sad smile.
“I am sure you will cope,” Selune says wryly as they come to a crossroads in the forest. “You may even do the unthinkable and make some new friends. You can be quite pleasant when you set your mind to it.” She looks up into the canopy. “Here’s a bit of light, finally.”
“I do not remember which path I took,” Seta says, frowning as she squints to look down each path.
“I would not have expected you to remember a path you chose while blinded by both darkness and terror,” Selune says kindly, placing her hand on Seta’s arm, “and it has been twelve years since that night.” The young girl pauses, raising her face upwards as if listening to hushed instructions fluttering down from the rustling leaves. “It’s this way,” she says after a moment, pointing down the path to their left.
“You’re sure?” Seta asks.
“Yes,” Selune nods. “It feels as though I’m being pulled.”
“Could it be a side effect?” Seta asks, staring at her hands.
“Maybe,” Selune shrugs. “But it isn’t a bad feeling. It’s more like…having been traveling a long way and cresting the last hill before you see your home.”
“A relief, then,” Seta replies. “All right, let’s continue.” She holds out her hand to the smaller girl. “Like old times,” she says, smiling.
Selune accepts the proffered hand without question. “You only ever wanted to hold my hand when you were scared. Mother used to have to bribe you with sweets to keep you with me in the markets.”
“Well, the markets were a fascinating place for a child,” Seta replies, reaching up to touch the pendant that hangs around her neck. “All those stalls with the colorful awnings, dazzling trinkets, the smell of baked goods.”
“I remember,” Selune sighs, smoothing the front of her dress. “Three copper bits for a runty sweet roll, four if we wanted the sugar glaze on top.” She looks appraisingly at her sister. “Although I bet that baker would give you a discount now if you smiled real pretty at him. You’re about the same age now as his wife was back then.”
Seta pulls a face. “He was old when we were children. I imagine he must be dead by now.”
“I suppose it’s harder for me to note the passage of time,” Selune says, her mouth twisted into a bitter smile.
“I didn’t mean –”
“I know.” Selune halts suddenly, turning towards the darkness of the trees. “Here is where we must leave the path,” she says. Her eyes have taken on an odd glow.
Seta reaches out and places her palm on one of the trunks, framing an aged arrow with her thumb and her pointer. “One of his?” she asks, the last word edged with bitter venom.
Selune nods. “For all his many faults, Father was at least a skilled fletcher. Can you remove the arrow? It might serve you well.”
“Possibly,” Seta replies, running the tip of her finger over the feathers. “But I might need it here to guide my way back.” Her chin dips towards her chest for a moment.
“If I didn’t know with certainty that you would be all right…” Selune begins, but Seta turns to her, shaking her head.
“I’ll be fine,” Seta says. “If this is what you want, this is what we’ll do.”
“I wish you could want it as well,” Selune replies softly.
“Part of me does,” Seta says, pushing a low-lying limb aside for her sister to pass. “The other part…it’s just that we’ve been together my whole life.” A few more steps and they enter a small clearing, a place where the absence of thick trees gives the illusion of natural light.
There’s a moss-covered rock, tall and angular, near the center of the clearing. A small skeleton leans against it, bones clean but largely undisturbed save for a hole in the ribcage with ragged edges. “And there it is,” Selune says softly. “It’s…so little.”
Seta reaches out and takes her sister’s hand. “You’ve always seemed like a giant to me.” She looks to the far edge of the clearing, where the tree trunks are scarred and black, bent backwards as if from some unnaturally strong force. A larger pile of bones sits nestled in the darkness, no longer forming human shape. Her face darkens, and she starts towards it.
“What are you doing?” Selune asks, her voice small and full of concern.
“Getting help,” Seta replies grimly. “He has a part to play in making this right.”
“Will it be him? Will he know us?”
“No,” Seta says. “Just his bones. He deserves no chance to make amends. He failed us in life, but his bones can serve us now.” She closes her eyes and mutters some words that tickle the back of the mind, familiar and foreign all at once. A blue glow animates the bones and holds them together. The entire rib cage and lower jaw are shattered, and the skeleton shambles towards the mossy stone in the center of the clearing. Seta unstraps a small shovel from her back, handing it to the skeleton. “Dig,” she commands, pointing towards the flat ground in front of the mossy rock, and the skeleton begins to dig.
Selune watches the skeleton as it digs, clumsy and disjointed as the impacts of the shovel jar the bones farther apart before Seta’s magic pulls them together again. “Does this satisfy you?” she asks her sister, looking up at her. “You killed him once already, you know.”
“Once could never be enough,” Seta scowls, kneeling beside the first skeleton and peering between the ribs. “The arrowhead is still there,” she says. “Do you want to keep it?”
“Should I? Does it matter?”
“I don’t believe so.”
“It concerns me that you aren’t certain.”
“If it doesn’t bother you to have it, then we should leave it in,” Seta says, rising to her feet. “Just in case.”
“You know, we could have brought your teacher,” Selune replies wryly. “I’m sure she could have given a firm answer, given her mastery of this sort of magic.”
“Oh, hush,” Seta says. “I asked her everything I needed to know, and I’m doing everything she told me to do. Besides, you’re quieter around her, and I wanted this trip to just be us. Do you mind if I eat while we wait?”
“Not at all. You haven’t eaten since breakfast. Don’t think I’ve been too distracted to notice.” Her small face crinkles up. “You’ve got to promise that you’ll remember to eat regularly, Seta.”
“If I catch myself slipping up, I’ll find someone to help me,” Seta says, rolling her eyes as she pulls out a small wedge of cheese and a crust of bread. “I’ll pay someone if I have to.” They watch the skeleton dig together in silence, broken only by the sound of Seta’s chewing.
After a time, Seta rises from the ground and examines the trench the skeleton has dug. “This will do,” she says, taking the shovel back. “Off you go,” she says, and the skeleton ambles off into the trees.
“Where did you send it?” Selune asks.
“I didn’t want this clearing tainted further by his memory,” Seta replies, “so I instructed it to pace the entire forest. One bone will drop every half hour until it can no longer remain standing, at which point the magic will fade entirely.”
Selune looks at her sister with a combination of pride and sadness. “This is why people fear those with your natural talents,” she says. “It’s not the proximity to death; it’s the unnerving creativity.” The young girl sighs. “Are we ready?”
“Almost,” Seta replies. “Before we begin…I am sorry, Selune. If I hadn’t run, if I had just waited…” She sighs, tears rolling down her cheeks.
Selune reaches up and wipes the tears away. “Had I protected you better from the man who was meant to protect us both, you wouldn’t have needed to run.”
Seta nods, lowering her head until it touches Selune’s brow. “And now, after twelve long years, it’s time to let you rest.” Clearing her throat, Seta casts her hand over the small skeleton, lifting it with her magic so as not to shake anything loose. She settles the little form into the bottom of the freshly dug grave, arranging the hands to lay clasped over the ribs. She reaches up towards her own neck, tugging the pendant free from its leather straps – a ring set with bloodstained quartz. Selune looks away as Seta pulls out a small, sharp knife edged with onyx and digs the tip into the meaty part of her own palm. She presses the quartz against the small bubble of dark crimson, adding new blood to old, before reaching down and retying the leather bands around the little skeleton’s neck. “Blood of my blood,” she whispers, stroking the cheekbone on the skull.
Selune hands Seta the waterskin and a clean strip of cloth to clean and wrap her hand as she climbs out of the grave. “Explain the ring to me again?”
“Sentiment and history,” Seta says, squeezing a thin stream of water from the skin onto her cut palm. “You wore it on a scrap of leather tied around your neck after Mother was killed, and after…that night…the quartz was stained with the blood of you both. I added my own blood to it because I bound you to me, so having some of my blood there should help guide you back to yourself.”
Selune frowns. “This is all sounding very theoretical,” she says.
“That’s because it is,” Seta replies. “Gifts like mine scare people. We can’t study them openly, very little is written down…for people like me, the magic is as much intuition as it is knowledge.”
Selune’s frown deepens, “I really wish you hadn’t just told me you were guessing.”
Once the wound is cared for, the sisters arrange themselves on either side of the grave, clasping hands across the open earth. Seta’s tears flow freely now as she studies every freckle on Selune’s small face, fixing each detail in her memory. Selune smiles and nods gently. “This will be difficult,” she says.
“I know,” Seta replies. “Reliving it in nightmares is hardly the same as reliving it in person, but strong emotions forged the binding so strong emotions must undo it. Are you frightened?”
“A little,” Selune says. “Everything happened so fast, and I don’t remember it like I should. All the little pieces matter, broken as they are.”
“You want to remember it all?” Seta asks, eyebrow raised.
“It will just be shades of the past,” Selune replies. “And sometimes, the darkest nights break into the most beautiful dawns. At any rate, I feel like my history here was far less traumatic than yours.” She blinks. “We won’t have to perform the actions, will we?”
Seta shakes her head, “no. We just have to watch.”
Selune sighs with relief and nods, “then I am ready.”
With one last, lingering look at Selune, Seta closes her eyes and inhales, raising her face towards the dense, leafy canopy above her. She begins to speak the words, words she was never taught but are carved into the very fiber of her being. Her voice is joined by others from the beyond in the long-dead language. “Tsid fier eipar tsid…”
Two girls, huddled together in their lone bed. The door, creaking open. Light from the cookfire in the kitchen creeping in. His shadow, looming dark and dangerous, lingering on the threshold.
“Vina nie ali yiar rek.” Rough hands, grasping in the dark. A flash of unnatural light, a howl of pain and rage, a blanket thrown to blind his eyes and tangle his legs. The smaller girl leaps from the bed, dancing just out of his resentful reach, across the cold stone floor. Fifteen steps on little legs, fifteen steps to freedom.
“Lile shial shiel memiryl kien elake drial wirlk.” The trees are near, but so is he. Darkness in the trees, places to hide, but he was a tracker once before he drowned himself in drink and knows the paths better than she. A small voice, a beloved voice, calling out. Sister means safety.
“Ma dre tadal fier dre kak ulno lat sepil afil.” A clearing in the trees with one lone mossy rock, too big to lift and too small to be helpful. Nowhere to hide, his heavy stinking breath coming from all sides, Panic welling up, tears spilling over, searching desperately for the killing blow. Too late–the glint of metal in the trees–the arrow’s loosed, but her sister is there, brave and bold and beautiful in her defiance. Something fragile, hidden, breaks inside her own soul as the arrow sinks deep into her sister’s chest.
“Eip luk dre bilnal drat holk yia hira.” A feeling, deep and dark and urgent boiling in her belly, rising in her throat. A scream of many voices, of fury and pain and anger and betrayal, shouting words she doesn’t know, has never known, each distinct in their cacophonous chorus as they explode from her, a wave of unbridled power careening towards the monster they called Father. Bones crack, and the scent of charred bark and the wet, metallic tang of blood fill the clearing as his body breaks, flung backwards against the trees. The air sizzles as the magic subsides, and everything is quiet, too quiet, until her sister’s voice calls her name. Selune is there twice, once on the ground and once standing beside her. They are fearful, confused, but together they can face anything. Seta gently removes the necklace from her sister’s body, a quartz ring on a leather strap, and the girls leave the clearing hand-in-hand without looking back.
Seta holds her breath for a moment, feeling the pressure mounting in her lungs and the quickening of her blood pulsing in her ears. She finally exhales, and as her air escapes from between pursed lips, the air in the clearing pulses against her skin – once, twice, once again, like the stuttering of a failing heart – and is still. Seta opens her eyes, casting them about the now-empty clearing, and sighs heavily. She retrieves her little shovel, gently placing the soil over the resting bones, working faster and faster as the pile of earth diminishes.
Soon, it is done, and Seta wipes the sweat from her brow and the tears from her eyes. She takes out her small onyx knife again and scratches the runes for ‘sister’ into the surface of the mossy rock, clearing away the bits of green that clog the jagged lines. “Rest well,” she says, rising to her feet. She finds the arrow lodged into the tree and does not look back, finding her way back to the path alone.