The Northern Wall had fallen. Two hundred men were dead. One of them was Edward.
Rain began to fall as Bella walked deeper into the woods. She pulled the hood of her cloak over her head, but the autumnal chill had made its way through the heavy fabric and pressed into her skin. The baby inside her shifted, and she rested a hand on her swollen stomach.
"We'll be there soon," she said, though she couldn't be sure that was the truth. She had heard the stories for years of the Witch of the Wood East of the river, they said, but now she felt as if she were wandering aimlessly, and she wasn't certain of the way back to the village.
The dead leaves crunched beneath her boots with each step. Her feet were tired and aching, but it couldn't be much farther, could it? The light was fading earlier with each passing day. There wouldn't be much daylight left.
Beneath her cloak, Bella began to shiver. "This is a fool's errand," she said to the empty wood. She could keep going or turn back now. She may back it back to the village before nightfall.
She stopped and rested against a large oak tree. Pulling her sodden cloak around her, she began to cry. The tears streamed hot down her cold face. How could she have been so foolish? The Witch was a story told to children. She had scarcely believed them. Her grief and anger had pushed her too far this time.
That was when Bella smelled the smoke.
She pushed off from the tree and walked toward the smell. It grew stronger with each step she took deeper into the woods, and as if it had just appeared, there was a stone cottage in a clearing. It had a red roof with moss hanging from the eaves, and curls of grey smoke rising from the chimney.
The door opened and the Witch stepped out of the house and into the rain. She wore a blood red cloak, with the hood pulled up over her long, black hair. She was young and beautiful, with golden eyes shining through the grey darkness. "Come here, my dear."
Bella hesitated for only a moment. This was why she had come all this way. There was no room for fear now. She walked the cottage and stood in front of the Witch. "I'm Bella. I've come to purchase information about the future." Her voice was dry and raspy, but she sounded confident and unafraid.
"Of course you have. Come inside, out of the cold." The Witch stepped aside from the door and warm air from inside touched Bella's face. It smelled of woodsmoke and something cooking on the fire.
She stepped inside the house. It was one small room, take up mostly by a large wooden table, with one half covered in jars and bottles, each containing different herbs. One jar appeared to be half full of dirt. The walls were covered in pelts, mostly rabbit, but some fox and beaver. Opposite of the door was a bed, covered in a colorful quilt and a deerskin throw.
"Let me take your cloak," said the Witch. "You're soaked to the bone."
Bella turned and looked at her. "Oh, I... thank you." She unhooked the latch at her throat and the Witch pulled the cloak from her shoulders
"Sit by the fire, dear."
"Thank you," Bella said again, not unsure of what else she should say. She took the chair closest to the fire, and the warmth was overwhelming, but welcome. A cast iron pot hung over the flames, and the scent coming from it made Bella's empty stomach rumble. She watched as the Witch hung the cloak by the hearth, and hung her own cloak next to it. She twisted around as well as she could with her protruding stomach to watch the Witch move around the table. "Did you know I was coming?"
The Witch smiled, and she seemed friendly, not wicked at all. "It doesn't work quite like that." She sat in the chair across from Bella. Her dress was black muslin and cut low, revealing the top of her small breasts. "Now, tell me. What information do you seek?"
"The battle in the North," Bella said, her voice clearing. "Have you heard news of it?"
"Some," the Witch replied. "There is only so much news that comes this way."
"The wall fell. My husband was there." Bella lifted her chin. "He's gone now, and my child and I will be alone. I... there's nothing I can do to avenge his death. I feel powerless. I can't just accept my situation. I want to find the key to destroy the invading armies. For the sake of the realm, and for myself."
The Witch nodded. "Did you love him very much, your husband?"
Bella's mouth opened, but no words fell. She swallowed and looked into the fire. "We had been friends since we were children. We both knew we were different and we bonded through that, and made a marriage of it. He'd been taking with the blacksmith's son since they were young. And I... there was no one for me."
"The village is small," the Witch said kindly. "The world is big."
Smiling a little, Bella said, "We laughed so much the night we conceived our child. It was necessary, and joyful. Ridiculous, but... we both wanted a child so much. And now he's gone. Because he felt it was his duty to go to war. Yes, I loved him very much. Not as a wife, but because he was my best friend. He was a good man, and I want to set things right."
The Witch considered Bella for a long moment. "Information on the scale of war, it's not as simple. There are many futures to consider, and plans to intercept. It takes time and concentration. It costs a higher price.
"I have money."
She shook her head. "I have little use for money. But I do have use for a child."
Bella placed her hands on her stomach. "You want my child? This baby is all I have left of Edward. I can't give her up, not for anything."
"There is still time to decide. But know that your child would want for nothing. And would learn the ways of my magic. I have no one to pass my knowledge to."
In that moment, Bella found herself seeing the world through the eyes of the Witch. Deep in the forest, all alone, except for those who seek her out for the use of her powers. What could be bought for a lock of hair, or flowers from a garden? Would those things quell loneliness?
"Stay the night," the Witch said, rising to her feet. She grabbed a large wooden spoon and stirred the contents of the pot over the fire. "It's too dark to walk alone in the woods now. I have food and a bed."
"I came to buy from you and you offer me food and lodging?" Bella asked. "I've already asked so much of you."
"And I ask a great price," the Witch replied. "Some choices are not so easily made. Now, have some stew."
They ate in silence. The stew was a thick broth with meat, carrots, potatoes, and peas. It warmed Bella right through, and perhaps for the first time since she'd received the news of Edward's death, she was contented.
"Did you charm this meal?" she asked, resting a hand on her stomach. The baby moved inside of her, as if responding to her touch. "It was delicious."
The Witch smiled and reached across the table for one of the bottles. She gave it a little shake. "Only with rosemary and salt."
"I feel..." Bella considered the Witch. Her smile was bright and her golden eyes shone in the firelight. She had been right that the world was much bigger than the village. "What is your name, Witch?"
She set down the bottle and stared across the table at Bella. Her smile faded into a line, her lips full and dark, but there was a teasing nature in her golden eyes. "A name is also worth a heavy price."
"I have nothing else to offer you," Bella said, her heart plummeting at her foolish question. "You don't want money. I only have left the clothes on my back."
The Witch stood and held out her hand. "You have more than enough. The price for my name is one kiss."
Trembling, Bella took the Witch's hand and rose slowly to her feet. She had no words, but somehow, she could sense the Witch could read her rapidly beating heart. She breathed shallowly and leaned in to press a kiss to the Witch's mouth.
The Witch's mouth was soft and after a moment, opened to Bella. Her body leaned against Bella's protruding stomach and slid a hand up her cheek. Bella's body flooded with warmth as the Witch's fingers brushed against her hairline.
Bella pulled back just a little to catch her breath. She reached up and caught the Witch's hand in her own. She pressed a kissed to the Witch's soft palm and asked, "Now, will you tell me your name?"
"Alice," she replied, the name falling from her perfect lips like music. She reached up with her other hand and ran her thumb along Bella's jaw. "I'm Alice. And for all my foresight, I did not see you coming."
Still holding onto Alice's hand, Bella said, "I could stay. You could have your child, a child for us both. I could have my piece of Edward and the turn of battle in my favor. And you, above all, you. If you'll have us."
Alice's eyes now seemed like two golden flames, burning bright and strong in the darkness. "I'd love nothing more, sweet Bella."
Bella took a step back and tugged Alice's hand in the direction of the bed. "Then have me, for I am yours."
"As am I, yours."