Kara’s eyes were locked onto the witch’s lips. They were chapped by the bitter winter air, imperfect where the rest of the other woman seemed frighteningly flawless. She took the sign of her lips, weather-worn and cracked, as a surety that there was a way for her to win, because the witch could only be human. As human as she was, and as prone to chapped lips as anyone else.
She was short too, another fact that caught Kara off-guard as she shivered in her baggy blue overcoat, sleet lashing against her and muddy boots sinking into the boggy earth of the damp countryside. Her face stung from the rain assaulting her rosy cheeks, turning her blonde hair into burnished ropes of dull bronze in the fading light, and the air was laced with the salty smell of the thunderous waves crashing against the bottom of the sheer cliffside, where the hills gave way to the sea.
“Are you going to keep staring at me all night?” the watch said, breaking Kara out of her reverie with a start.
They’d been silent for a few moments now, and she’d fallen into a trance that she would’ve sworn was witchcraft if she didn’t know any better. No, this bewitchment was of Kara’s own volition, enraptured by the woman’s alabaster skin and raven hair plastered to her face. The dark cloak she wore was black with water and seemed to swallow her, making her seem almost childish, playing dress-up in her mother’s clothes. The thought of a childhood so normal for the young witch made Kara startle slightly, blinking rain out of her eyes as she suppressed a shiver.
“Because, you know, if you want to kiss me, you may as well ask. The sun’s setting and it’s cold, and the hills are boring. So, by all means, get on with it.”
Kara choked on a splutter and felt her face warm with embarrassment, chasing away the edge of the cold wind. “I don’t want to kiss you! I’m here to- to slay you.”
The witch flashed her a smile, wry and simpering, her eyes dark in the fading light as she gave Kara a patronising look. Her laugh was quiet and musical, as relaxed as if they were taking a meandering stroll across the hillsides in the spring, enjoying the wildflowers and roaming sheep.
“And you’re doing such a wonderful job. Perhaps you’ll even remember to pick up that pretty sword at some point.”
Floundering for a second, Kara’s mouth opened and closed, before she made a grab for her sword, forgotten about, having stumbled upon the witch and finding her very real and not particularly threatening. She looked too young to have earned a reputation as a scourge upon the land, ordinarily beautiful, if a little soggy at the present.
As Kara reached for her sword in hasty panic, it flew out of reach, soaring into the witch’s hand at the mere gentle crook of a finger, beckoning it towards her with a wordless spell. She gave Kara a roguish wink, mouth curled into a pleased smile as Kara’s mouth went dry.
Licking her own chapped lips, Kara clenched her jaw and thrust her hand out before her. “That’s mine. I’d like it back if you don’t mind.”
Arching an eyebrow, the witch quietly chuckled. “So you can run me through with it? You make a compelling argument.”
Flushing, Kara mentally scolded herself. Of course the witch wasn’t going to hand over her sword when she’d made it perfectly clear what she intended to do with it. Instead, her hand fell limply back to her side and she curled her fingers into fists, nails leaving crescent gouges in her palms.
“Although, I am curious. Why do you want to kill me?”
The watch looked at her from beneath heavy-lidded eyes, eyelashes wet clumps stuck together by beads of rain. She weighed the sword between her hands, raising the heavy length of steel to cast a studious eye along the wicked sharp edge of it as it caught the last fading rays of sunlight. Gripping the hilt, the witch leant the blade against her shoulder and gave Kara a curious look.
In a desperate attempt to disarm and incapacitate the witch before she attacked, whether by steel or magic it didn’t matter, Kara lunged forward. The witch’s eyes widened in shock as the heavy sword slipped from her shoulder and dragged her arm downwards as it scored the boggy knoll.
They went down in a tangle of limbs, heavy clothes dragging them down, and the sword slipped from the witch’s grasp, sliding down the grassy hillside a short way, before coming to a rest as the witch and the woman wrestled on the cold, damp ground.
It wasn’t exactly a heroic fight of skill and talent, nothing that would ever become a story in a book of fairy tales with knights slaying demons and dragons. Instead, they tousled for a few moments, ice clinging to grass biting at their exposed hands and cheeks, before the witch’s voice was low and indistinguishable in Kara’s ear, breath warm against her cheek, as she uttered a spell.
On her back, cheeks pinked by the cold and mouth gaping open like a suffocating fish on dry land, Kara found herself unable to move, limbs frozen like limp, leaden things that were no longer attached to her body. The detachment was eerie and frightening as her heart leapt into her throat, sure that now was where the witch would kill her.
“That’s cheating,” Kara managed to get out from between trembling lips, blue eyes wide with wariness.
Straightening up, the witch was as splendid and beautiful as before, despite the severe scowl crumpling her forehead. She was just as flushed from the cold as Kara was, dark hair in disarray and an affronted look on her face as she jutted her chin forward. Kara had to remind herself that she wasn’t human. For all her striking looks and human qualities, the witch wasn’t a harmless human to play with.
“You were the one trying to kill me!” the witch spluttered, snatching up the sword and heaving its heavy weight towards Kara, pressing the point to her throat. “So, tell me why I shouldn’t do the same to you. Who sent you?”
“I- well, it’s a- a bit complicated,” Kara stammered, her lips blueing from the cold as her teeth chattered.
Cold seeped into her back from where she lay in the muck, and she had lost all sensation in her limbs as a result of the witch’s spell. It was an entirely unpleasant situation, and Kara looked at the wicked length of steep pricking her neck and swallowed thickly.
“I- I’ll tell you,” she rasped, mouth dry, “but can we- do you have a- a house? It’s so cold.”
Kara didn’t mistake the hesitation and reluctance on the witch’s face as any sort of pity or sympathy for her, but relief flooded through her at the stiff nod. With a muttered counter-spell, Kara found herself moving again, limbs tingling from the numbing cold that sent stabbing needles through her frozen fingertips, and she awkwardly staggered to her feet as quickly as possible, eager to remove herself from her vulnerable position.
Doing her best to wipe muddy sleet off her coat, Kara gruffly cleared her throat and warily eyed the witch, who set off before her with the sword balanced against her shoulder once more. Following behind her, trailing at a distance for her own safety, Kara eyed the weary slump of the woman’s shoulders, tired from a long day and the chill of winter.
They made a beeline for the snow-capped firs of a small thicket of trees, barely able to be called a forest, and Kara felt some of her bravado fading. To enter the domain of the witch was to put herself in the hands of the enemy, and Kara was reluctant to step into the shadows of the still woods, but found herself following the dark shape of the witch as dusk settled in and the coniferous trees blocked out any light.
Tripping over her feet in the dark, branches brushed her cheeks and her footsteps quietened by the carpet of dried needles, Kara continued forward. She lost sight of the witch almost immediately after stepping into the twilight of the silent forest, but she never lost her way. Feeling tethered to some unseen and unknown location, she carried on, letting herself get reeled in like a hooked fish. She had the strange notion of a quiet voice at the back of her mind whispering to her, guiding her along, and it made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end.
This way. This way. This way.
Glancing around, she peered through the dark, unable to see any phantom spirits speaking to her, or feel the watchful eyes of the witch on her as she waited for her, but Kara felt watched all the same.
The first glimmer of light sparked hope in her heart, the thought of shelter and warmth before a fire a welcome relief from the bitter wind that rustled through the trees, and she was shivering and too damp to care about where that shelter came from. A dark shadow peeled away from the wooden side of the cottage, startling Kara as the witch seemed to appear out of thin air, and her heart leapt in her chest, before settling to the normal fluttering of nervousness.
Wordlessly pulling open the door, the witch stepped inside and Kara followed after her, hesitating momentarily on the threshold before the thought of a reprieve from the cold night made her step over the boundary of the small cottage. A single candle and smouldering embers of a fire lit up the space, and Kara shut the door behind her and lingered back as she watched the witch.
She busied herself in front of the fire, adding large split logs to the cherry remnants of an earlier fire and murmured something too soft and low for Kara to catch, before she breathed over the wood and orange tongues of flame licked at the logs. A crackling fire lit the hearth as light chased away the shadows inside the cottage, and Kara felt a wall of heat slam into her.
Shedding her sodden cloak, the witch hung it over the back of a chair and moved it closer to the fire, before casting Kara a sideways look. A small smile curled her mouth as she slowly rounded the table, heading towards the cupboards in the kitchen. Her feet were bare against the flagstone floor and in the flickering firelight Kara took in the deep green of her tunic.
“You’ll catch your death standing there in those wet clothes, you know,” the woman murmured, moving about with surprising gracefulness. “Take off your boots and warm yourself by the fire.”
Hesitating for a moment, Kara did as she bid, kicking ice from the soles as she deposited them beside the door before she shed her blue coat and folded it over the seat of the stool the witch’s cloak was draped over. A shiver of pleasure ran through her at the searing heat of the fire, making her frozen skin tingle as it thawed out, almost painful in its intensity.
The witch stepped up beside her, smelling of rain and earth and herbs, and Kara flinched out of the way, stumbling backwards and slipping on the edge of a woven rug as the witch brushed past her to hang a large iron kettle over the heat.
As Kara pushed herself off the floor, hissing with pain as she rubbed a banged elbow, the witch turned around and looked at her with thinly veiled amusement, lips pressed together as if to keep a laugh at bay.
“Did I startle you? You won’t catch anything from me, you know. I won’t curse you with a single touch,” the witch snorted derisively.
Climbing to her feet, rubbing her new bruises, Kara scoffed, “no, you don’t even need to touch me; your words will do enough.”
“Oh, they could,” the witch mildly agreed, lips curling into a wry smile, “if I thought it was worth the effort. But tell me, is it my power that frightens you so much? Or the fact that your problems aren’t actually my doing? It’s always nice to blame someone else, isn’t it?”
Kara opened and closed her mouth, before pressing her lips into a flat line, a grim expression on her face as she stood a few feet from the witch. In the firelight, she noticed that her eyes were green. As green as the forest in daytime, green like the hills or the moss that grew along the banks of the jade river near Kara’s village. She’d thought them black in the waning darkness, something sinister and evil, instead of the beautiful, clear knowingness of them as if the witch was seeing through to her soul.
“I have no issue with you, witch. And I’m not afraid of your power. If I were, I wouldn’t have come.”
“So, you take no issue with myself or my magic, yet you sought out to kill me? How intriguing . It’s been a very long time since I came across someone so interesting. It’s quite refreshing.”
“I imagine the centuries must be lonely when you’re busy cursing everyone you cross paths with.”
With a flurry of surprised laughter passing her lips, the witch raised her eyebrows and gave Kara a sharp smile that made her stomach lurch. “Centuries? I’d be insulted if I didn’t know the stories. Sorry to disappoint you though, but I’m as mortal as you.”
She turned her back on Kara and crossed over to the kitchen again, lugging the sword with her as she was sure to keep it out of Kara’s reach, and a few minutes later, she was lifting the steaming kettle out of the fire and filling two cups set on the table. Pale green liquid streamed out of the spot, filling the air with the fragrant smell of herbs, and the witch fetched two blankets, tossing one at Kara, who barely caught it as she stood rooted to the spot.
The witch took a seat and rested the sword against the table at her side, a blanket wrapped around her thin shoulders as she picked the cup up in a pale hand and took a sip of the scalding liquid. At Kara’s apprehension, her mouth curled up into a smile and she arched an eyebrow.
“Sit. Drink. Don’t worry, it’s tea, not poison or some potion. Lavender, chamomile and mint, to be exact. It’s perfectly safe. See?”
To prove her point, the witch took another sip of her own and flashed Kara another smile, a flicker of some unreadable emotion in the depths of her sea-green eyes, her smile challenging yet amused. Slowly, hackles raised and limbs stiff, Kara eased herself down onto the chair across from the witch, wrapping the blanket tightly around her shoulders and reluctantly clutching the cup in her cold hands.
She surreptitiously sniffed it, before taking a tentative sip. The herbal taste was soothing and light, cut through by the familiar coolness of mint, and if there was a spell or a potion brewed into it, it was well hidden. Not that Kara would’ve been able to tell at any rate. Still, the supposed tea warmed her insides well enough for her to drain it quickly.
Before she could even lower the cup with the dregs back down to the scarred wooden tabletop, it was miraculously refilled, steam curling up to caress her face. She blinked in surprise and glanced at the witch, who was watching her closely, gauging her reaction. Kara didn’t speak, she just took another sip and silently accepted the quick cantrip.
“What’s your name?” the witch eventually asked, seeming to chew each word before she asked.
Eyes widening slightly, Kara’s pale eyebrows rose and she opened and closed her mouth, before clearing her throat and shifting on the chair. Her eyes fell to her sword once more, and she wished it was in her hands, giving her some semblance of defence against the woman across from her, seemingly innocent, yet brimming with unsavoury magics and untapped power. Without her coat and her sturdy boots, Kara felt utterly stripped bare, unarmoured and exposed, so she clutched the cup of tea a little tighter and gave her host a cautious look.
“Do you think I’m foolish enough to willingly give you my name? Any idiot knows that a witch can do all sorts of things with a name.”
“That’s very wise of you,” the witch prudently replied, nodding solemnly, “although, I could just as easily do much worse without your name.”
She shrugged nonchalantly as Kara’s stomach clenched, her body tensing as she was hit with gut instinct to flee. Bracing herself for some sort of attack, she watched and waited as the witch did nothing more than take another sip of tea, before setting her cup back down and nimbly running her finger around the edge of it with a brooding look on her face.
“My name is Lena,” the witch continued in a clipped tone, almost as if relishing the sound of the words.
Kara wondered if she got to introduce herself often, or if any wanderers were scared off before she had the pleasure. She imagined that any threats were dead before reaching that point, and wondered what was so different about her. Although now that she considered it, sitting in the warmth of the modest cottage, with its neatly made bed and bundles of dried herbs and roots hanging from the rafters, jars and vials neatly labelled and fresh flowers on the table, she wondered how much of a threat the witch really was. Surely a witch who dabbled in black magic and had a blacker heart would be more bloodthirsty and dangerous.
Still, she could feel magic tangible in the air. There was a certain mugginess to the room that she’d thought was the heat of the fire, but sitting at the table with her tea, Kara could feel it coiling around her ankles, a light caress that made her skin prickle. She inhaled it and felt her tongue prickle, and felt the watchful eyes of the witch on her, piercing enough that it was almost as if the blade of the sword was being held to Kara’s throat instead.
“You have nothing to lose by giving me your name,” Kara murmured, “I can’t do anything with it. I have no magic.”
With a quiet laugh, Lena cocked her head to the side and gave Kara shrewd look. “Yet you came here to kill me anyway. Why is that?”
The deal had been a simple one. The death of the witch, with the heart for proof, and in return one could earn the prince’s love and hand in marriage. A bargain, in the grand scheme of things, but easier said than done when faced with the chance. Especially when she’d been expecting some nefarious old woman with withered skin and a small window of opportunity to get the job done. Kara hadn’t imagined that she’d be sitting down for tea first.
“Romantic,” the witch dryly commented.
Kara flushed to the roots of her hair, looking down at the worn table as she cradled her cup in her hands, feeling as shallow as a puddle before the piercing gaze of Lena’s watchful eyes.
“That your beloved’s greatest wish is for you to bring him the heart of another woman. You might want to talk to him about that.”
Making a choked sound at the back of her throat, Kara peered up through her dark lashes. “You’re not a woman - you’re a witch.”
Lena arched an eyebrow and gave her a rueful smile, although she didn’t deign to reply. Kara took another sip of her cooling tea as her heart hammered in her chest, knowing that her words weren’t quite true. Softly clearing her throat, she set her cup down and leant back in her chair.
“Besides, he’s not my beloved . I’m not- it’s my sister. She’s sick. If I- if I kill you, if I take your heart, he can fix her. He can make her better. All the best doctors are at court, and if I ask him … he’ll say yes.”
She gave Lena a helpless look, blue eyes softened by the sadness etched into the strained lines around them. Her heart wrenched painfully with fear, thinking of her sister in their home, face flushed with fever and the house thick with the fetid smell of sickness and sweat. Kara had tried her best, as had their mother, but she was finally at her last resort. Seeking out a chance that very well could kill her.
Taking in the chapped lips, softened from the hot tea, and that pretty mouth curled slightly at the corners in a look that was amused, patronising and scornful all at once, as if she found humour in the patheticness of silly humans. It wasn’t the mouth of a monster, no sharp fangs or lips stained with black poison, it was just the mouth of a girl who looked to be the same age as her. It was a lovely mouth, one that might’ve smiled a lot. It didn’t look like the cruel mouth of someone who spewed evil spells that brought sickness to the palace gates or cursed the crops of nearby villages.
Finding herself staring again, Kara quickly ducked her gaze, but not before catching the slight quirk of Lena’s lips as she leaned in closer, her green eyes so intense that Kara felt sure that she could read her thoughts, see right through her, to the deepest parts of her soul.
“A witch’s heart is a dangerous thing.”
Shifting in her seat, Kara shrugged beneath the heavy weight of her blanket, the smell of grass and pine shrouding her. “It wouldn’t be much of a quest if it wasn’t.”
Leaning back in her seat, Lena pursed her lips for a moment and reached out to trace the pommel of the sword with a slender finger. “So, we’re back to the fact that I should probably kill you.”
Her eyes turned back to Kara, who sat stiffly across from her, throat closed with fear as the witch hummed indecisively. “Although, you were doing such a poor job of it earlier that I have to wonder if your heart was even in it.”
With an affronted look on her face, Kara scowled and tried to swallow her protests. The truth was that Lena was right, but she shouldn’t have been. Kara should be able to kill her easily. It should’ve been nothing to slip the long blade through her ribs, to cut her heart out of her chest and carry it back home and save her sister. Lena was supposed to be old and corrupt, and Kara should’ve been able to do it without little reservations, especially to save Alex.
“You … weren’t what I expected. That’s all.”
“People rarely are,” Lena sighed, “that’s the trouble with having expectations for people you’ve never met.”
“You just- you caught me by surprise, that’s all! It won’t happen again.”
“Are you trying to make me kill you?” Lena chuckled.
Kara’s cheeks turned red again as she grew flustered, her stomach tying itself into knots as she managed to dig herself into a deeper hole. Still, she was curious and apprehensive, and looked up at Lena with wariness.
“Why haven’t you?”
“Curiosity, mainly,” Lena supplied, pursing her lips as she narrowed her eyes at Kara. “I suppose I’m wondering what possessed you to try and kill me instead of just asking me for help.”
Blinking in surprise, Kara opened and closed her mouth, brow crumpling with a bewildered look on her face as she cocked her head to the side. “Asking you for … help?”
“Your sister is sick. I have magic. One would think that the logical decision would be to ask before trying to slaughter the one person who could possibly help you.”
“And let you work your black magic all over her?” Kara scoffed, face twisting with revulsion, “she would rather die than let you defile her with dark spells.”
With a derisive snort, Lena rolled her eyes and grit her teeth, a muscle twitching in her jaw as she gave Kara a bitter smile. There was a flicker of hurt in her eyes for a brief moment, gone so fast that Kara wondered if it had really been there at all.
“There is no black or white magic,” Lena replied in a clipped tone, words laced with irritation and simmering anger, “only the gross misuse of power, or the lack of skill for greater spellwork. Do not presume to think that we witches are subject to the dichotomies of humans. We are far greyer than that .”
“But the stories-”
“Do you think I steal into houses and snatch babies? Look around; where are they? Do you see little bones or an infant turning over the fire like a chicken? Do I have warts and sharp teeth? Is my cottage brimming with frogs and cobwebs and bubbling potions? You would do well not to put much stock in baseless stories, friend. You’ll only find yourself disappointed by the reality. That is to say that I haven’t quite lived up to your expectations.”
With a thin laugh and a wavering smile, Kara took another sip of her tea, the freshness of mint coating her loose tongue as magic curled around her, seeping into her and warming her to the witch. Of course, there was no magic in that, only Kara’s pleasant surprise that left her reluctant to leave, but unwilling too with her sister’s life in the balance.
“Indeed you have not, but that’s not entirely a disappointment. Although, it would’ve been much easier for me to cut out your heart if I’d found you covered in the blood of your victims, with toads and bats crawling around the place.”
“It wouldn’t be much of a quest if it was easy,” Lena echoed Kara’s previous words, eyes flashing with mirth. “Which brings us back to the problem at hand.”
Swallowing thickly, Kara uncurled her hands from her teacup and rubbed her clammy palms over the thighs of her worn trousers. Drawing in a deep breath, filling her up as she straightened, shoulders squared and jaw set, she fixed Lena with a level stare, determination flashing in her eyes.
“If you let me go, I’ll give you my heart,” Kara said, only a slight tremble in her voice betraying her fear. “Just … let me go so I can save my sister.”
“You shouldn’t give your heart to someone like me,” Lena sharply replied, face taut and eyes dark with anger, “you don’t know what I’ll do with it.”
“My heart is mine to do what I want with it, to gift it as I please.Besides, you’ll have far more use for it than I.”
Lena watched her with a troubled look on her face, wariness flickering in the depths of her eyes as if she was cautious of Kara’s offering and her willingness to offer her heart up so easily. Did she realise what she was doing? And if she did, what kind of reckless abandon would make her readily do so. Surely not an ill sister. Lena looked as if she was being presented with a trap, yet wasn’t sure who the hunter was.
“Hearts are tricky things,” Lena lightly replied, voice soft and rumbling, “they’re wild creatures with teeth. An untamed heart will bite the hand that takes it.”
“Like a fisherman’s lure. And you dangle the bait so well; I would almost think you harmless if I didn’t know any better.”
Choking back a mewling cry of despair, Kara deflated in her seat, shoulders slumped and curling inwards as she leant towards Lena. Her blonde hair was dirty and tangled, her cheeks speckled with dried mud and her eyes brimming with sadness. When she spoke, her voice was raw with pain.
“Please. I’m begging you. She’s all the family I have - I can’t lose her.”
“You’re asking for the wrong thing.”
“Wha- you can’t keep me prisoner here!”
Lena let out a quiet chuckle as Kara spluttered, face stark white beneath her smattering of freckles as her eyes went owlishly round.
“I have no interest in prisoners, I assure you, miss. Anything you could provide me, I could summon at the snap of my fingers.”
As if to make her point, Lena snapped her fingers and a loaf of crusty bread flew over to the table, followed by a wheel of yellow cheese and a knife, which ceremoniously buried itself in the lump of cheese. Reaching forward, Lena yanked the knife out and cut off a thin sliver, biting into the slice of cheese as the knife started sawing into the loaf of bread without her aid.
“Eat,” Lena ordered. “You must be hungry by now.”
Eyes gritty with tiredness and a hollow pit in her stomach, Kara couldn’t disagree, and helped herself to the bread and cheese with the same grudging trust that she’d sipped the tea with. If Lena had any intention of hurting her, there was nothing Kara could do about it, so she might as well die on a full stomach at the very least.
“Tell me what you want and I’ll give it to you.”
“You should be asking what you want.”
Biting back a sound of frustration, Kara tore off a mouthful of bread and chewed quickly, blinking back the tears that stung her eyes. “I just want my sister to be better. I just want to cure her.”
With surprising gentleness, Lena leant across and touched the back of Kara’s hand, ignoring the flinch and the obvious urge for Kara to pull back. “Then ask me.”
Cheeks flaming with embarrassment at the fact that she’d let her emotions get the better of her, Kara angrily rubbed at her eyes and gave Lena a dubious look, as if she didn’t trust her offer. Surely it couldn’t be that simple. There had to be some catch, some trick to the witch’s urging.
“And what do you want in exchange?” Kara asked, “what bargain will you have me make? Will you take my soul?”
Shrugging half-heartedly, Lena gave her a pitying smile, her green eyes softening in the firelight. “Does it matter? You offered me your heart to save her; I think you’d offer your soul too.”
“Can you truly cure her?”
“I swear to you on my magic that I will do everything in my power to cure your sister. For a price.”
Mouth dry, Kara licked her chapped lips and shifted in her seat, before nodding. It was an easy decision, even if it filled her with fearful apprehension. “I’ll pay it.”
“Let us be off then.”
Lena rose fluidly, murmuring too low for Kara to make out any words as she moved her fingers in jerky motions and waved her hands about. Sitting helplessly on her chair, Kara watched as vials and herbs and other bits and bobs neatly packed themselves away, as the fire dimmed down to a low glow, plunging the cosy cottage into shadows, and a thick, palpable cloak of magic descended over them.
Her body prickled at the muttering of the witch, a cold sweat covering her flushed skin, and one by one, Lena put heavy wards into place and packed her things. She had her dark, dirty cloak thrown over her shoulders and a gnarled staff in one hand and looked at Kara with impatience as she arched an eyebrow and held a lamp aloft.
“Well? Are we going?”
Scrambling to her feet, feeling sluggish and relaxed from the effects of the tea, Kara snatched her muddy coat from before the fire and shoved an arm through one sleeve, striding over to the door and shoving her foot into a damp boot as she struggled with the other arm. Watching for a few moments, Lena sighed heavily and clapped her hands together in a motion that startled Kara.
The lamp was floating mid-air and Kara looked at the witch’s illuminated face with shock, eyes wide and a feeling of anticipation creeping up on her as she froze, arm halfway into her coat and boot laces tangled. With a sudden flurry of activity, her coat pulled itself on, the brass buttons doing up one by one before a violent shiver involuntarily ran through her and a dried layer of mud shed itself. Her boots dried and pulled themselves on, tongues straightening and laces tying into perfect bows. Even her shirt felt snuggly tucked in and the creases in her travel-worn trousers neatly flattened out.
A small squeak worked its way up Kara’s throat as wisps of her hair snaked back into a neat ponytail and she caught a sideways glance at the collar of her coat settling down like some sentient creature. Staring wordlessly at Lena, Kara watched as the witch gestured and the long length of steel flew towards her and carefully sheathed itself in the battered scabbard, which belted itself around Kara’s waist with finality.
“Much better,” Lena brusquely stated, before making for the door.
Despite her spellwork on Kara’s appearance, Lena apparently held no such concerns for herself, looking like a wild woman of the woods with her messy tangle of curls, leaves and burrs and pine needles caught in them. Her cloak was patched and threadbare in places and her skin was splattered with mud, yet she marched onwards through the trees without little concern for what the villagers might think of her terrifyingly beautiful appearance.
Silently, they marched over fog-shrouded hills, boots sinking into icy bogs and a chill permeating the late winter air. The smell of salt vanished as they left the sea behind, passing through fields of long grass and flickers of lights that set Kara’s heart thundering in her chest at thoughts of fairies and trickster demons luring her astray. The yellow glow of Lena’s lamp lighting the way led her true though, and she trailed a step behind the witch’s dark cloak, breathing in the dank air of the bogs and the rich, earthy smell that clung to Lena.
The night was dark and moonless, stars sprinkled across the velvety blackness like molten drops of silver and a weariness crept into Kara’s stiff limbs as they marched onwards, taking the same path she’d set herself on earlier that afternoon in her last desperate attempt to help Alex. She imagined herself making the return trip with the witch’s heart, not the living, breathing being herself, yet the fact that she was returning at all was a miracle in itself.
Midnight was upon them when they finally made it to the walls of the sprawling town, yellow lights cutting through the darkness and fog, surly-looking soldiers manning the watchtowers and giving them both suspicious glances as they entered through the small side-gate. Lena had a tight grip on her lantern by then, and the gnarled staff looked like nothing more than a walking stick.
They hurried through the streets with purpose, and Kara kept sneaking glances at the witch known throughout the town, a bedtime story for naughty children and a warning to adults who strayed too far at night. She looked at ease as she followed Kara through the streets, looked unconcerned about the fact that if anyone caught wind of a witch within the walls they’d burn her at the stake. Her lack of concern made Kara wonder if that would even work.
Eventually, they made it to a stone house squeezed in between two similar houses, warped glazed windows and a solid wooden door with a ward burned into it to keep monsters out. Lena let out a snort of laughter and shook her head, before pricking the pad of her thumb on the sharp edge of a stone and smearing her blood over the worn wood.
“If you’re looking to keep those who mean you harm out, you might want to try something that actually works. Not silly old wive’s tales.”
“Thank you,” Kara murmured, feeling meek before her scolding.
Digging an iron key out of her coat pocket, she opened the front door and slipped inside. A faint glow came from the embers of the fire and the house smelled of sickness, coating Kara’s tongue with its cloying, fetid stench. After the fresh air of the countryside and the sea, it was worse to step back into and she buried her nose in the crook of her elbow.
At Lena’s whisper, she glanced over her shoulder, lantern bobbing midair once more, and watched as a tongue of flame danced above Lena’s forefinger, almost greenish as she delicately touched a wad of herbs. It immediately started smoking, grey and thick and sweet, chasing away the bad odour and filling up Kara’s lungs as her eyes streamed.
The house had few rooms, which left Kara watching as Lena walked circles around the ground floor, murmuring wards and charms to herself, occasionally motioning with her hands as she waved smoke around and cleansed the air. With a rattle, the windows all blew open with gusts of cold air and Kara shivered in the gloominess.
Eventually, Lena turned to the rickety staircase and silently ascended with Kara following behind her, both of them packing into the narrow twists of the staircase, shrouded in smoke and magic. Skin crawling and throat raw, Kara pressed her lips into a flat line of resignation as her body tensed up.
Alex was as she’d left her, damp and pink-cheeked with fever, lips moving soundlessly and eyes rolling back and forth beneath closed lids. The bedsheets were yellow with sweat and twisted around her sister’s limps and the air was close and foul in the cramped bedroom.
Lena bid the windows open and waved the smoking herbs around too, filling the space with the freshness of sage, yarrow and rue. Crumpling the herbs in her first, Lena gently blew on the ashes and scattered them on the floor, where they faintly smoked and continued to cleanse the place, while the witch stood like a spectre in the middle of the room, unmoving and cloaked in her dark garb.
As she stood there, she breathed out slowly, and Kara was mesmerised as she watched a steady stream of white tumble from Lena’s lips, a cloud of coldness pouring from her mouth like an endless breeze. The temperature dropped enough that Kara’s breath started misting before her too, and she wrapped her arms around herself as she looked at the still figure of her sister. Their mother would be out picking herbs and praying for her recovery, and Kara was grateful that she wasn’t in the house to watch the witch cast spells on her daughter.
But she was grateful to Lena too, much to her surprise. Grateful when Lena pulled out sprigs of lavender and crushed the flower buds between her fingers, kneeling at Alex’s side and rubbing her temples as she whispered. Sleep, sleep, sleep. It was like that voice in Kara’s head as she walked through the forest, lulling her with the rhythmic sounds of that warm, soothing voice. She found herself falling into a stupor as the witch worked.
Lena hummed, softly sang and tapped on the wooden floor, she muttered in foreign languages that might not have been human at all and clapped her hands, breathed over Alex and snapped her fingers. She worked quickly and efficiently, swirling herbs around in the bowl of clean water on the bedside, which had been empty when they’d walked in, trickling drops of it through Alex’s parted lips with her bare hands, washing the sick woman’s clammy damp forehead with a lemony scented tincture she dropped into the water.
It was long work, and tiring, even for Kara, who stood throughout the whole thing, feeling limp and dead on her feet. Yet as she watched, she saw the redness of Alex’s face fade to the pallid complexion of a healthy person recovering from sickness, she heard the rasping breaths even out as Lena blew smoke through her parted lips, and the rolling eyes still beneath her lids. Kara knew it had worked the moment Alex let out a faint sigh, her whole body deflating as if she’d slipped off to a peaceful sleep, and with that, Kara’s coiled body seemed to relax too.
She blinked her dry eyes and focused on Lena, who was looking at her from the shadows, face pale in the dark and haggard from the work she’d performed. Warmth and gratitude rushed through Kara with such surprisingness that she couldn’t quite believe it herself. For all her suspicions and reservations, she’d been right to trust Lena, and her knees felt weak with relief as she looked to her sister.
It wasn’t until Lena made for the door that Kara broke herself out of her reverie and turned her back on Alex’s sleeping figure, following the witch down the narrowing, switchback staircase and to the front door. Lena pulled it open to the wintry night and Kara shivered at the gust of wind that rushed inside as the witch stepped out into the darkness.
“She’ll be fine by sunrise,” Lena told her, a solemn expression on her face, “make sure she rests. Witch’s orders.”
A laugh bubbled up Kara’s throat and came stuttering out. Lena smiled at that, a genuine smile that made her eyes crinkle slightly, and Kara felt her heart lurch in her chest. It was quickly replaced with the panicked anticipation of what price she would now have to pay for Lena’s deed.
“And now, I bid you farewell.”
At Lena’s words, Kara’s brow crumpled into a frown, mouth turning down at the corners and confusion clouding her eyes. “But I haven’t paid-”
Holding up a hand, Lena gave her a peculiar look. “You have paid. You’ve paid in trust, and that is payment enough. I think you will not be so judgemental in the future, Kara Danvers.”
At the sound of her name falling from Lena’s lips, her name that she’d never told the witch, her name the witch should never have known, Kara’s stomach dropped and she felt the blood drain from her face.
“A name is just that - a name. No one can hold power over you with it, no more than they can without it, but it does help you understand someone. The moment I understood you, I knew you completely. All of you, even your name. And that is its own sort of power, one that can’t be given or taken. It just is. And now, now you have to trust that I’ll do you no harm. As paid in full.”
“Wha- I- well …”
Lena let out a short laugh and cocked her head to the side as Kara shifted from foot to foot in the doorway of her house, staring at Lena with bewilderment as she tried to make her mind up about the witch. She was shockingly human, that much had been made clear, with more humanity than any human Kara knew, for all her power and sharp words. It was with crushing relief that she realised that she didn’t have to kill her.
Bolstered by that relief, and her newfound appreciation for the witch, and perhaps fewer reservations about magic in general, Kara leant in and fit her mouth to Lena’s chapped lips, taking them both by surprise. They were rough and weather-worn, yet soft and warm and yielding. It lasted only a moment, but set Kara’s body on fire and made her cheeks flood with warmth as she pulled back.
“I- you told me to- to get on with it. If I wanted to kiss you. I, well, I did .”
“Oh,” Lena mumbled, blinking away the dazed look on her face. “Well, thank you.”
“Your lips … they’re shockingly human.”
Lena’s shockingly human lips curved up into a smile as she leant in with a conspiratorial gleam in her eyes, “do you want to know a secret? The biggest monsters are the ones who look the most human. It makes it easier to trick them.”
Blinking in surprise, a small crease formed between Kara’s eyebrows as Lena pulled back. “Is that … a warning?”
“Make of it what you will. I hope it won’t deter you from visiting me some time though. I’m afraid I was wrong before; there is one thing you can provide me that magic cannot.”
“The pleasure of your company, Miss Danvers. Loneliness consumes my soul more so than dark magics ever will. And I find you quite interesting, to say the least. Look for me in the hills, if you should ever find yourself in the area.”
With a bashful smile and pink cheeks, Kara ducked her head and scuffed her booted foot along the cobblestones. “I shall endeavour to find myself there more often then.”
“Until then,” Lena said with finality, her voice a faint sigh as she pulled a dark hood over her wild hair and fixed Kara with her piercing stare one last time.
She melted into the shadows like a wraith, leaving Kara standing in the doorway as a bitter wind worked its way through her clothes. There was a fluttering in her stomach and a pleasant leap in her chest that caught her off guard, and as she stood there in the doorway, letting the cold air chase away that lingering odour of sickness, her mind entertained the thought that perhaps Lena’s chapped lips weren’t quite as human as she’d thought.
Perhaps there was witchcraft in her lips after all, because Kara knew it in her heart that she’d been bewitched the moment she’d kissed her.