Farder Coram met Serafina Pekkala during the last days of summer, when everything was hot and still, no edges or endings, and all but the deepest channels had run dry. He’d never seen a witch, only heard of them in child stories, fairytales, wide-eyed and half-true. If he’d been asked then, what a witch was, he would not have been able to say, only convey the vague notion of black silk and bare arms and wide, red mouths.
She had fallen out of nothing and into the marsh.
He’d been travelling through the fens of Eastern Anglia, sky like a great upside-down bowl, empty and smooth. She had fallen from it, and at first he had thought she was a trick of the light, like the dark spots that danced in front of your vision after looking into the sun. (She had been ethereal before he even met her.)
She fell out of nothing, nowhere, and crashed into the marsh in a tangle of limbs and silk. He’d swung the tiller round (because in his experience things that fell from the sky were seldom any good at swimming, and it was the sort of boat to rescue someone in, proper, with painted trim and shining portholes). But the water was thick and heavy, and the wheel had turned slowly, so slowly; it took him a good five minutes to reach her – and she half-drowned, with the red bird still circling…
Coram swung himself over the side, reaching for her. He’d caught her arms, but she was smooth and wet and it was hard to find the purchase to lift– but he did, and they flopped over the side, uselessly, like beached fish. The wood of the deck felt like the best reward, worn and smooth and warm from the sun, and he’d shot down the great red bird with her still half-in, half-out of his arms.
That was the beginning.
Sophonax, his dæmon, notices first. Coram is leaning over the stern, searching for where the red bird fell, when she growls, fur on end, teeth on edge.
“Coram, she has no– she hasn’t got any–” is all she manages to breathe out, low and urgent. And Coram knows immediately, instinctively. He turns to look anyway, cold dread pooling low in his stomach. The witch – and he knows she’s a witch; she fell from the sky; she’s dressed like nothing he’s ever seen; she’s beautiful – is still lying on the deck, waterlogged and catching her breath. And she’s alone. Completely and utterly alone.
“No dæmon,” he finishes. Sophonax is around his ankles, bristling, claws out, and Coram’s stomach turns too, one slow heave, because for her not to have one… It’s as if he’s looking into a face with no eyebrows, or shaking a hand with no fingers. Coram shudders and takes half a step back.
The witch is barely conscious now; she’s breathing long, slow breaths, ribs probably bruised, leg probably broken. She’s just lying there, and he should move to help her but it’s so unnatural… Then she moans, a hand flutters, and he is desperately ashamed of himself. In three steps he is at her side, sliding an arm under her legs, under her back. Sophonax bares her teeth at the contact, but makes no move towards them. Coram lifts the witch. He can feel the wetness seeping through his shirt, clammy against his skin, and she’s lighter than he thought she would be. He carries her to the cabin, lays her on the bed. Her hair spreads across his pillow like a wet shadow.
The first thing she says to him (when she can speak) is: “thank you.” The second thing she says is: “my name is Serafina Pekkala.” The third thing she says is: “what is your name?” And even though her voice is high and beautiful, even though she is beautiful, he can barely stand to listen, to look at her. She’s sharp at the edges of his vision, like the sun, or a nova. She burns.
But he’s polite. He tells her his name, offers her food. Sophonax watches impassively as he fusses with the plate like a ship mother. “No good’ll come–” she says, and he says “You couldn’t have let her die anymore than I could,” and they stare at each other with hard eyes until there’s a clattering on the deck.
At first, Coram thinks it’s another bird like the red one, has his arm half-raised to shoot, when Sophonax hisses a warning. And Coram knows then, just like he knew about the witch. The grey goose flaps desperately against the side of the boat, so much like her – like Serafina – that Coram is halfway across the deck to help before he catches himself.
“Where is she?” rasps the goose.
“Below deck,” answers Sophonax. She leads the goose down with a high-stepping gait that lets Coram know exactly what she thinks of the situation.
It’s no use. With the goose there, pressed against the witch’s side, Coram finds he can look at her directly for the first time. She’s still beautiful, still fearsome, yes – but the fine edges have been shaved off her otherworldliness. If he squints, she could be a human girl, hair curling against her neck.
“This is Kaisa,” she says, smiling with her wide, lovely mouth, and he’s lost.
She stays with him until weeks roll into months and they’re married in a Gyptian wedding ceremony. At sundown on the open water Coram puts the ring on her slim finger, struck dumb and pleased by the choice she made – she, a princess among witches, and now his wife. His mother frowns over what kind of bride she’ll be, pale and foreign with her unknowable eyes. Coram doesn’t care. They dance until dawn, the deck of the wedding-boat pitching and swaying beneath their feet. She is simultaneously graceful and wild and like nothing he’s ever seen, before or since.
“I love you,” he says against her neck, later, in the dark.
“Yes,” she murmurs, back a perfect arch. And then she is kissing him and Kaisa is dropping his beak between Sophonax’s ears and Coram is overwhelmed and wonderfully, breathlessly happy.
That is the middle.
When she leaves him, years later and no time at all, it’ll be hot and still like it was on their first meeting. She’ll burn like she did then, strange and terrible and not his, never his. She’ll be otherworldly once more, separate, a crown of saxifrage flowers in her pale hair and silk tied around her waist.
“If he’d lived, would you have stayed?” Coram will ask. (They'll bury him at sea, a Gyptian burial for a Gyptian boy, a mortal boy, and Coram will hate himself then.)
“I never could have stayed,” Serafina will answer, and she’ll look so young, not a day older than their first meeting. And Coram will know then. He’ll see his entire life stretched out before him, days and years, himself ageing and her trapped by time, still and unchanging as a picture.
“I will love you until I die,” he’ll tell her. And he will. He will.
That will be the end.