The world was not getting any smaller, there was just less in it.
Fairies never visited Greendale anymore, and Zelda suspected their remaining numbers were in hiding. Goblins rarely came out of their caves, and the dwarfs had not left the mines in decades. Trolls let just about anyone cross their bridges these days, and Zelda had not seen a unicorn since the 1860’s.
She remembers when she was still a child and the last dragon had died. Her carcass had been as big as a hillside, and droves of witches had flocked to it, gathering and scrounging. Dragon’s teeth were powerful, and a key ingredient in some of the most ancient spells. Their scales were sharper than steel and did not rust. Their talons were as large as a horse, and the bone marrow was said to give unspeakable knowledge to anyone who drank it. Zelda remembered crying as they picked apart the beast, scattering it to the four winds. Zelda didn’t understand why the dragon did not just fly away.
Wake up, she urged it silently. Fly away!
But no dragon ever flew again, and the ash of the last dragonfire fell to the ground like black snow. Prophecies were left to rot, boxes with hidden treasures went unopened, and witches grew old and died.
There were many types of witches. There were bog witches who looked like one would think a bog witch would look like. There were witches of the forests, who lived in houses made out of evil men's bones. There were cunning crones who had little shops in dark alleyways and hunted in the bowels of mortal cities. There were sea hags and necromancers, enchantresses in the valleys, and witches like Zelda who lived at the foot of the mountains.
The visit from Gryla had reminded Zelda of all the things that once were. The image of the other witch, with her wild hair and dark eyes had been a reminder of what could have been. A reminder of what Zelda could be. In some stories, Gryla was a giant. In others she was just a witch with a sad story. Either way, Zelda feared her and the power that lingered long after she had left with the faux Leticia.
Zelda never felt powerful in the church. It was a building built by warlocks and it reeked of stuffy air and prayers whispered by powerless men as they waited for power to be thrust upon them. The church with its ancient rituals and dead words was a meeting place, a gathering point. But when she was young Zelda had worshiped in the forests. She took to the woods, removed her shoes and walked barefoot amongst the trees. She climbed the rocky mountains and breathed in the thin air.
Magicfolk had no kings, but on the mountain she had felt like a Queen, with twigs in her hair and her dress caked in mud. She was the witch on the mountain and she loved being alone on the mountain, high above where all the world looked small and impossibly far away. How far she had come since being a child, staring into the dead dragon’s glassy eye.
Death was an inevitability that haunted Zelda. Some witches lived for a thousand years, and some only for a few short centuries. They rarely died of old age. Some witches even saw their deaths in dreams, long before they passed. Most died by violence, or by a spell gone wrong, or by the hands of their suspicious neighbors. Some drowned at sea, some were poisoned by their enemies, and some dreamed of a long line of torches slithering up the hillside on its way to burn down a witch house at the forest fence.
Zelda had never dreamed her death. One dream followed her though, and it came back after Leticia was gone. Zelda dreamed of a clearing of white birches covered in a silent cloak of snow. It was the clear, crystal white aftermath of a winter storm that haunted her. In the dream, the sun was always rising, and the ground sparkled as bright red blood dripped down her fingertips.
She had dreamed of her parents as they grew old and withered. They had wandered into the woods, like all ancient beings, and had stood amongst the trees. Their stillness changed them, and moss grew on their hands and feet, until they became trees too. She dreamed of her Aunt Constance whose hands had become stiff and wrinkled with age, and watched those hands curl into fists when she couldn't remember even the simplest of spells. Zelda slept and saw Constance walk down to the river to become a part of the current that drifted all the way out to sea. Years later, she saw Edward plunging into the same sea in a metal cage, and she dreamed of Diana holding Edward’s hand until the waters tore them apart. She dreamed of Vinegar Tom, old and feeble and unable to outrun the neighbor’s car as it slipped and careened on black ice.
Sabrina was a full witch now that she had signed The Book of the Beast, but she had been mortal, and part of her was mortal yet. She was full of teenage angst and hunger, and she ached for a better world. She was so young, and Hilda and Zelda had made sure she would want for nothing. But Sabrina’s duality made her different to other Spellmans, and Zelda knew that despite the long life ahead of her, Sabrina would grow old and die long before her aunts ever did.
Zelda hoped to never dream of Hilda.
The dreaming made it hard to sleep, but she could always be lulled by the sound of Hilda snoring softly beside her. Before Hilda, it had been an endless parade of faceless people, mortals and witches alike. Lovely, beautiful people, whose names Zelda forgot as soon as she forgot their faces. One had been a devout Catholic, a lady’s maid who did not know she served in a house of witches. She slept in the little bed in the corner of Zelda’s room, and Zelda slept soundly as the the maid mumbled in her sleep. And then it was a warlock who had thought he would marry her, but Zelda only wanted him for a decade or so.
When Hilda moved out of their shared bedroom it was Leticia, who slumbered often and cried rarely. She was a peaceful babe, and Zelda couldn’t help but be bewitched by her little noises, the soft cooing and the giggles of delight. Her little hands were soft as Zelda hummed, and she whispered a silencing spell around the room when the thud of Ambrose’s music disturbed their quiet. The peace was shattered as Desmelda spirited Leticia away to a life of safety and seclusion.
Zelda did not sleep for days.
She thought that since the house had others she would be able to drift off, but she had always slept with someone near, someone close by to help her feel safe. But it was hopeless, with Hilda down the hall and Leticia gone.
She tried everything. A calming chamomile tea just before bed, a sleeping draught in her brandy, a purple potion in her hand cream meant to soothe. She lounged in her clawfoot bathtub and marinated in buttermilk as dozens of candles flickered, and eventually went out. And yet, she could not sleep.
She carefully tipped her head back and placed a drop of foxglove on her tongue. And then two drops. And then three. She slept for a few hours, but awoke when Salem scampered down the corridor outside her bedroom. She huffed and threw off the duvet, marching down the stairs to start the day.
Her face was ashen, and the bags under her eyes were growing by the day. Her hair wouldn’t stay the way she wanted it, even with a charm to help the curling iron. Her hands shook as she poured her morning tea, and she couldn’t focus on the newspaper during breakfast. The words swam together, making a jumbled sea of letters, and she tossed the paper down in defeat and glared at her family instead.
Leticia had been gone a week and she hadn’t slept a wink.
She prayed to Satan every night to bring her sleep, sweet dreamless slumber. Only for an hour or two. Anything.
On the eighth night she prayed to Lilith.
“Mother of demons, hear me,” Zelda whispered as she kneeled beside her bed, her hands clasped together tightly. “I beg of you to bring me sleep." She bowed her head and closed her eyes. “I am so tired,” her voice cracked. Her bones ached, and her head throbbed. She felt as if she was on the verge of a great precipice, teetering over a yawning abyss. She felt as if she was going mad.
Then, a breeze swept through her room, and the warding candle on the windowsill flickered. Someone was at the door.
She heard a dull knock, and Zelda rose quietly, walking passed Sabrina’s room and then the spare room- no, Hilda’s room . She padded down the stairs and pulled her robe tightly around her. It was chilly on the ground floor, and the house creaked as the winter wind howled outside. A storm was brewing.
She opened the door and stepped back as a hooded figure walked across the threshold. The wind swept through behind her and snow drifted along the wood panels of the floor and a few flakes swirled around before settling on Zelda’s bare feet. She quickly closed the heavy door to keep out the night and it clicked shut with a finality that seemed to echo in the quiet house.
She turned around to face Mary Wardwell.
“You?” Zelda sputtered in disbelief. “The Dark Lord sent you?”
Miss Wardwell shrugged as she tugged back her hood. “The Dark Lord works in mysterious ways?”
It was a hollow explanation, but beggars can’t be choosers, and Zelda was not far off from begging. She was exhausted, and she sighed in resignation as she felt her shoulders droop.
Miss Wardwell hurried over to her and placed both hands on Zelda’s waist as she swayed.
“Why did you wait this long Sister Zelda?” Miss Wardwell scolded lightly. “I could have come sooner, you poor dear.”
Zelda shook her head and leaned into the other witch. Her hands were surprisingly warm, having been out in the cold on the journey here, and Zelda wanted to sink into the warmth.
“Come, let's get you to bed,” the schoolteacher murmured, and Zelda allowed herself to be led up the stairs, past Hilda’s door, past Sabrina’s, and down the winding corridor to her own. It should have felt strange, to have Sabrina’s teacher in her bedroom, but Zelda couldn’t shake the fog that had settled in her brain. Her head was so heavy, and her feet shuffled along. She felt herself slump onto the bed and watched as Miss Wardwell gracefully draped her coat on the back of the chair at Zelda’s desk. She kicked off her heels, and turned to look at her.
She must have been a sight, because Miss Wardwell’s eyebrows knit together and she hurried over and gently urged her to lie down.
“That’s it,” she murmured, as she tucked Zelda under the covers. “You’ll be asleep in no time.”
“What have you brought me?” Zelda asked, as she felt herself sink into the mattress. Her head settled into the soft pillow and she turned to watch the other woman walk around the bed and settle on the other side. Zelda hadn’t heard anything, but Miss Wardwell must have whispered a spell sometime since they entered the bedroom, because her bed had grown slightly, and was now large enough to accommodate them both. Miss Wardwell stretched out on top of the duvet and settled beside her. Zelda watched as she gently crossed her ankles and settled her hands on her stomach. The woman looked prim and proper, like she was ready to be buried.
“I haven’t brought you anything,” Miss Wardwell said, smiling as she caught Zelda staring.
Zelda’s brow furrowed. “Nothing? No elixir or incantation?” She loathed how her voice went up in pitch, high and desperate.
“Just little old me,” she said, and grinned that grin Zelda hated.
“Fine,” Zelda huffed, and turned away to look up at the arched ceiling. Her heart rate was slowing and she felt sleep taunting her, just around the corner. Her eyes slipped shut without her permission and the only sound she could hear was the wind howling, the old house shifting, and Mary Wardwell breathing in and out beside her. Zelda’s breath quickly matched it, and she felt her body grow impossibly heavier.
“Just be gone by morning,” Zelda mumbled. “I don’t want my family to know you were here.”
“Don’t worry,” Mary promised softly. “I’ll be gone long before the sun rises.”
“Praise Satan for that,” Zelda whispered as she finally, finally drifted off to sleep.
“Praise Satan,” Mary whispered back as she watched Zelda sleep.