Every respectable town needed a witch.
It was a saying Sharon had heard since she was a little girl, usually from her aunt. Back then, it had been understood. A town needed a witch, to help with everything from crops to house building to child birth. At least, that was the sentiment among the country towns. The little places that still depended on the earth for prosperity. The ones where the rules of society and class structure were a little blurred. That was the realm of the witches. They took care of their towns and guarded the soft spots in the earth and everything has seemed peaceful.
Now, of course, there were many towns without a witch. The war that has eaten Sharon’s teenage years had left their numbers decimated and the land scarred. Now there were many towns without a witch for miles. And perhaps their crops didn’t thrive as they once did and their houses rocked more in the weather. But for the most part, they got by.
And then there were towns like Triskelion, which had three of them.
Trisk, as it was known to the locals, had been the site of the last great battle of the war. The woods that curved around the west edge of the town had been soaked with magic and blood, a potent combination. It left the area dangerous for witch and human alike, and in need of guardians.
The town called them the Sisters on the Hill, which was a misnomer in both ways. They weren’t sisters and while they lived on the far edge of the town, it could hardly be called a hill. Their house had belonged to Sharon’s aunt, a large, sprawling estate held together with luck and spells. She had fond memories of living there as a girl, when her parents had died. There were doors she hadn’t been allowed to open and rooms she’d never explored, but for the most part it was comfortable, familiar. The bannister was still smooth wood, shiny with age and the touch of hundreds of hands. There was a series of notches in the door jamb of the green parlor, marking Sharon’s height as she’d grown. And the portrait of her aunt hung in the upstairs hallway, mischief dancing in her eyes and a faint smile tugging her lips. The backyard had no fence, despite the carefully planted and thriving garden, instead spilling out into the woods that they now guarded.
Sharon shared the house with two other powerful witches, both veterans of the war, both protégées of her aunt. Amanda was the older of the two, though Sharon had no idea how old she truly was as she had always looked as she did now, save for the scar that now marred her cheek, a souvenir of the battle that had changed the woods and killed Aunt Peggy. Amanda was an Earth witch, and they tended to be a little ageless, especially one as powerful as Amanda. She had taken Peggy’s place as the head of the coven after the war, though with the witches thin on the ground as they were, the position was far more ceremonial than political.
Natasha had been Peggy’s righthand woman in the war, despite the whispers about her on both sides of the fight. Despite being called everything from a double agent to traitor, Nat’s loyalty had never wavered. Sharon thought Nat missed Peggy as much as she did. But Nat kept her emotions tightly covered, as all good fire witches did. Natasha had been with Sharon when Peggy had been slain, had helped carry her body to the back of line, where Amanda had abandoned her medic duties to meet them. In that moment a bond had been formed between the three of them, as the last burst of magic had left Peggy’s body and flooded them. Together they had helped turn the tide of the war. Together, Sharon suspected, they could accomplish anything.
That had been two years ago. Mourning and rebuilding had taken up the first year. Sharon was the last of the Carter line and there had been demands on her from all the families. She’d never had her aunt’s diplomatic touch, but she’d learned enough to not offend anyone she’d visited. Having Amanda at her side had helped.
There were other spots that were scarred like the forest. The world had always had spots where reality seemed a bit . . . thin. Where magic ran strongly and powerful spells could be forged. Amanda called them soft places. Witches had guarded such places for as long as anyone could remember. The war had created new ones, and the magics that ran in those places was often wild and chaotic.
Amanda had made sure all the soft places had guardians, so that no mortals could stumble into them. The reputation of witches was fragile now and they couldn’t afford any accidents. While most of the places were small and subtle enough a single witch was enough, the woods to the west of Trisk were large and had always been a little off. The locals had a dozen or more legends about the place. Wolves that talked and houses that walked. Men who lured people away with the song of a flute. Clearly the fabric of the world had always been thin there. The battle had ripped the threads even farther, leaving holes. On certain nights, when the moon was dark, Sharon swore she could hear whispering.
“Are you sure about this?”
Hands deep in the dirt she crouched in, Amanda peered up at her, face shadowed by the brim of her bonnet. “The placement might be a little close, but I want to fit in as many as possible. If I notice them struggling I can pull a few.”
“I mean planting fruit trees so close to the wood.” Sharon squinted at the trees before looking back to her friend. “Aren’t they going to be poisonous or soporific or something?”
“The wild magic doesn’t cross the line.” Amanda pointed to the thick line of chalk that lined the edge of the woods. “And my orchard will stop a good twenty feet before it.”
“Still awful close. What if the chalk stops working?”
“I’ll know long before the magic reaches my trees.” She looked down to continue covering the roots of the sapling. “And if not I will certainly know when it reaches the trees.” Sharon had a touch of nature magic, but it was mostly limited to getting certain delicate flowers to bloom, not the bone deep understanding Amanda had.
“Besides,” Amanda continued, giving the dirt one more pat. “If the chalk stops working we’ll have more to worry about than the fruit trees.”
“That’s when we burn the land and salt the earth,” Natasha said, picking her way down the path.
“Fire is not the answer to every one of life’s problems,” Amanda told her, moving on to the next sapling.
“Spoken like a true earth witch,” she teased back. She bent to peer at the saplings. “What are we growing.”
“This row is apple. The other one is plums. I’m going to try some figs and nuts as well.”
“Sounds like we’ll be making pies,” Sharon said. “Assuming they grow.”
Amanda glanced at her, gracefully rolling up to her feet. “They’ll grow.” All of Amanda’s plants grew, strong and healthy. She sold cuttings to those in town who asked for them and while they didn’t thrive as ridiculously as her own, they were always hearty and long lived.
“Speaking of pies,” Nat said as the three of them walked back to the house. “Whatever Nell is cooking smells divine.”
When they’d first moved in, they’d attempted to care for the house themselves. They was all wary of strangers and uncertain how the townspeople would feel about working for witches. But after six weeks of trying to choke down Amanda’s cooking, wearing stained clothes Sharon simply couldn’t get clean, and coughing every time Nat forgot to open the flue before starting the fire they conceded all the power in the world didn’t make them good housekeepers. Inquiries had been met with surprising enthusiasm. Nat thought, rather cynically, Sharon felt, that people were just curious to see the inside of the house. They’d ended up with a live-in cook and two girls that came regularly to clean and do the laundry. Looking at Amanda’s skirts streaked with mud Sharon was considering slipping the laundress a few extra coins.
They reached the back courtyard and Amanda paused to use the pump to rinse off the worst of the mud from her hands. “You think of the chalk line as a wall, a cage,” she said to Sharon. “Something containing the magic that it claws and pushes against. That’s now how it works. It’s a boundary line. The wild magic has its territory and understands that this is ours. As long as we respect that line, so will it.”
Sharon glanced back at the woods. “Have you been in there? Since the battle?”
“A few times,” she said, shaking water droplets off her hands. Nat leaned forward and blew on them, drying them. “It’s a good place to recharge. To find an answer to something you’re stuck on. You should try it some time. Wild magic loves air as much as earth.”
She couldn’t say if her reluctance to venture past the chalk was because of the unpredictability of the magic, or the dark memories of battle. Still, she knew Amanda was right. Magic wasn’t inherently evil or inherently good. It only mattered how a welder used it. Yes, the power in the woods was intense, but she was a Carter, she could manage it, especially with the others guiding her.
Looking over at Nat, she asked, “Do you ever go?”
The red-haired witch laughed. “No, thank you. I have more than enough power of my own to deal with. I don’t need to wade through more.” Pulling open the back door, she gestured for them to proceed her inside. “But I agree with Amanda. We should take you out there sometime.”
The two of them so rarely agreed on anything, this almost certainly meant she’d be heading out into the woods sometime soon.
Amanda had never wanted to be the head of a coven. She’d mostly just wanted to keep her head down and practice her craft. Instead she was sitting behind a desk with a stack of letters from the heads of a dozen houses, all with demands and advice she didn’t really want.
“If you could see the look on your face,” Nat said, leaning in the doorway of Amanda’s office. “If you were me, you’d be setting things on fire.”
“Don’t tempt me.” She picked up her cup of tea, only to find it cold and sighed, standing.
“What do earth witches do when they get angry? If you can’t start fires.”
Amanda arched a brow, planted her feet and sank her frustration down into the ground. The house trembled with the force of it, windows and decorations rattling.
Nat inclined her head. “Point taken.” She held out a hand for the tea cup. “Give.”
When she handed it back it was the perfect temperature for drinking. “Thank you.” She sipped it, but continued walking towards the kitchen. “The heads of house seem to have universally decided to harass me. They’d be more likely to get a positive response if they staggered their demands.”
“That sort of planning is why you lead the coven and not them.”
“I assure you, that is on their list of complaints.”
Nat was watching her in that way she had that meant she was seeing right through her. “Do those letters have anything to do with you encouraging Sharon to embrace the wild magic out there?”
With a sigh, Amanda set her cup on the kitchen table and scanned the larder shelves, trying to decide if she wanted a snack before bed. “The war broke out before Sharon was twenty, just as she was to start her last stage of training. Instead, she followed her aunt to war and spent the last years of her innocence living in mud and learning to use her power to kill. There are things she doesn’t know that she needs to know. How to handle wild magic is one. Her bond to this land is another.” Perhaps some bread and cheese.
She fetched the loaf and a hunk of hard cheese and brought them to the table. “This is her property, much as we all maintain it. Most of the ancestral lands were broken apart and auctioned off, but Sharon had a clear family connection and I was loud, so she kept it, with us as her guardians, until she was married.”
“And now they want her to be married.” Nat said it with derision and the temperature of the room went up a degree or two.
“Very much so. I’ve received several applications for the position. I’ve been holding them off saying her training isn’t complete, but I think they’re going to get less polite, soon.” She fetched a knife and sat to make her snack. Nat took a chair across from her.
“She’s too young,” Nat said, stealing a piece of cheese.
Amanda arched a brow. “She’s twenty five. When you were her age you were seducing dark wizards for information.”
Nat shrugged negligently, as if that was a perfectly normal activity for a young lady. “And what were you doing? Watching the earth cool? Wooly mammoth tending?”
“I was on top of a mountain learning what plants grew in harsh climates,” she retorted, ignoring the jab at her age. All witches carried their years lightly, but earth witches especially scoffed at the reaper. Amanda looked the same as she had in this wild days on the mountain, save for her scars. She would likely look the same a decade hence. She’d lay good odds Nat had no idea how old she was and it needled her. Nat hated not knowing things.
“So we teach Sharon what she needs to know, introduce her to the land she belongs to and. . .what? Auction her off to the more prestigious family?”
“I’m hoping by that point she’ll have enough power to make her own choices. To find a man she actually wants to be with, or tell the elders where to stuff it.” Witches weren’t as aggressively patriarchal as the mundanes surrounding them. Wizards could be as strong as witches, but the power came in women more often than the men. When you were out numbered it was awfully hard to rule, though lord knew they tried.
Peggy had stayed single her whole life, leaving only a niece as her heir. Sharon could do the same if she wanted, though she would face more pressure that she would have before the war had decimated their numbers. Amanda would certainly prefer to be left alone for the rest of her days, but even she might start getting offers soon.
“As long as no one comes eyeing me,” Nat muttered, making Amanda laugh.
“I’m quite happy to be dried up old spinsters together.” Amanda stood and brought her cup and knife to the sink to rinse them. “Though if she does get married we may find ourselves looking for a new place to live.”
“Nonsense, this place is huge. We could hide out in the south wing and they’d never find us.”
The forest loomed beyond the kitchen window and Amanda had the odd feeling that it might be listening to them, somehow. Despite what she’d told Sharon she was never entirely sure if the power in the trees was malevolent, benevolent or something entirely neutral. She did sense it was aware of them in the house and was, for want of a better word, curious. “Maybe the woods will take us in. We can build a house of gingerbread and lure plump children down dark thorny paths.” The tree branches seemed to rattle a bit, as if laughing with her.
Before Nat could respond they were both startled by a loud clatter. Amanda was a little amuse to see that Nat immediately dropped into a fighter’s stance at the sound. A scan of the room revealed the broom that had been leaning on the wall next to the back door was now laying on the floor in front of the threshold.
“Broom falls,” Amanda said quietly, exchanging a glance with Nat. “Company’s coming.”