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you have witchcraft in your lips

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            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.

 

            “Is it?”

 

            “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.”

 

            “I’m offering.”

 

            “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.

 

            “Here.”

 

            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.

 

            “It’s done.”

 

            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.

 

            “How-”

 

            “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.”

 

            “Oh?”

 

            “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.

Chapter Text

            The light was waning as Kara stumbled over boggy hills, boots splattered with mud and damp all the way through and a fierce wind tearing through the worn fabric of her baggy overcoat, which she clutched tightly to herself, trying to conserve her warmth. Her lips trembled and her scabbard banged awkwardly against her legs as she wearily trudged up the gentle incline of yet another hill, staring out at the view before her as she reached the peak.

 

            Fog dwelled in the dips and valleys, blanketing the countryside for as far as she could see and bringing the dank sea air with it as it blew in off the coast. Breath pluming before her in a white cloud, Kara panted as she turned in a slow circle, stormy eyes narrowed beneath heavily furrowed brows as she tried to make sense of where she was.

 

            She wouldn’t exactly say she was lost, but she didn’t exactly know where she was either. Finding the little thicket of trees that obscured the cosy cabin was a greater challenge than she’d anticipated, although she was sure she’d retraced her steps almost perfectly. Her cheeks were bitten by the early spring chill and she felt a pit of hunger in her stomach as she stared miserably out at the indigo sky, the first stars just starting to wink into existence through the thin veil of clouds.

 

            There was a strange ringing to her ears and a fuzziness to her head as she stood there, blinking rapidly as she tried to shake the strange sensation. It left her tongue feeling thick in her mouth, prickling with the gentle feeling of pins and needles, and her frown deepened as she braced her hands on her hips. After a moment, she plunged a hand into the pocket of her overcoat and pulled out a battered round case, flipping open the lid and squinting down at the face of the compass. 

 

            The needle spun around in circles, this way and that, of no use to her at all, and Kara finally let out a cry of frustration as she dashed the compass at the soggy ground and gave it a kick for good measure, tearing up a clump of dark earth and dewy grass. 

 

            “Damn you to hell, you useless thing!”

 

            Falling heavily onto the ground, she let the wet seep into her trousers as she pulled her knees up to her chest and wallowed in her misery. She was a long way from home and it was getting late already, with not so much as a shadow of a forest anywhere within her line of sight, which was growing limited with each passing moment as night was ushered in. 

 

            With a forlorn look on her face, she stared out at the hills, which would soon give way to craggy mountains - she’d come that far north - and wearily sighed as she ran a hand through her golden hair. Freezing, hand still tangled in her locks, Kara swallowed thickly as she felt the cold sensation of steel pressed to her neck, her whole body turning rigid beneath the threat of it.

 

            “What’s this? A lonely traveller lost in the hills?” a familiar voice murmured, soft and lilting and full of amusement.

 

            Kara turned so quickly that she nearly slit her own throat on the knife held to it, wincing as she just nicked herself on the sharpened edge of the blade as she startled and whirled around, staggering to her feet. Grimacing slightly, she pressed her fingers to her neck and stared at Lena with wide eyes as her shoulders slumped with relief. It was so overwhelming that she felt her heart soar in her chest as she smiled at the witch.

 

            “Lena!”

 

            She stood there shrouded in her moss coloured cloak, pallid skin almost ghostly in the last light of the day. Her dark hair was a tangled mess, the same as the last time Kara had seen her, and she was carrying a wicker basket, slung over her arm and dangling from the crook of her elbow. It was like she’d appeared out of thin air, an apparition out of the fog or a manifestation of Kara’s wishful thinking. But she was very much real, chapped lips and all, holding Kara’s dagger in her right hand, the edge bearing a tiny smudge of red.

 

            “I didn’t mean to nick you,” Lena softly replied, a deep frown furrowing her forehead, “my apologies.”

 

            Kara was rooted to the spot as the witch shook out a spotless handkerchief and pressed it into her hand, almost as if conjuring it by magic, until she realised that Lena most likely had conjured it by magic. Her fingers clutched the soft fabric and she dabbed it against the bead of blood welling up on her skin, feeling her heart flutter in her chest.

 

            “I was looking for you,” Kara blurted out, a bewildered look in her eyes, “I thought I knew the way, but … I got lost. I set out this morning to visit you but then … my head … it felt all slow like it’s been stuffed with wool. Before I knew it I’d gone in circles and ended up here, although I don’t know how.”

 

            “My enchantments,” Lena said, cocking her head to the side, “they befuddle the minds of anyone seeking to find me. A necessary precaution in these times, unless I’d like to find myself on the stake.”

 

            “Oh.”

 

            With a faint smile, Lena glanced upwards, her eyes searching the cloudy skies. “Luckily my crows sent word on the wind that you were here. I was at the coast, collecting ingredients.”

 

            She gave the wicker basket a gentle pat and flashed a quick smile at Kara, before they lapsed into silence again.

 

            “I, uh, well, I …”

 

            Trailing off into bashful laughter, Kara gave her an uncertain smile, pulling the handkerchief away from her neck and staring down at the spotted fabric, carefully folding it over to hide the smudges of vivid red blood.

 

            “I’m not sure why I’m here,” Kara eventually continued, a clouded expression on her face as she met Lena’s piercing stare. “I don’t know why I came, but I just … I suppose I wanted to see you again.”

 

            “Well, I could certainly use the company. It’s been some weeks since we last spoke; I haven’t had any guests since. Come. You must be famished if you’ve been out here since dawn. And more than a little footsore.”

 

            Nodding, Kara hid a wince as she thought about her blistered feet, chaffing against the damp cotton of her darned socks and the soggy leather of her boots. She’d barely noticed it, tramping around the countryside with a befuddled mind, clouded by witchcraft, but she realised with startling clarity that the sensation has disappeared now, since Lena’s appearance, and with it, all of Kara’s aches and ailments resurfaced with more than a little discomfort.

 

            “I think I managed to take a few layers of skin off my feet on my wanderings,” Kara weakly laughed.

 

            “Sorry about that. Here.”

 

            Lena reached out with one hand and cupped Kara’s cheek in her hand, so cold that it burned her skin like a branding, gently resting a finger against Kara’s temple as her mouth wordlessly moved, quicker than the fluttering of a bird’s wings. There was a strange feeling that spread through Kara’s mind, one that left her mouth dry out of the lingering fear of magic that had been instilled in her since she was young enough to know what it was, yet she didn’t move as Lena cast some unknown enchantment on her, addling her mind.

 

            “You shouldn’t be affected by it again,” Lena curtly told her, before flipping the short knife in her hand, holding it out hilt first with a crooked smile on her face, “and I believe this belongs to you.”

 

            “Ah, thank you.”

 

            Kara took the knife and slid it into the small scabbard on the opposite side of the sword, mildly surprised that Lena had managed to take it from her without her knowing. Yet not entirely surprised at all, given the enigma that the witch was. 

 

            “And this belongs to you,” Kara hurriedly continued, holding out the wadded up handkerchief with a wince of embarrassment, having ruined it with her blood.

 

            Chuckling quietly, Lena reached out and folded Kara’s fingers over it, holding her hands in hers for just a moment too long as she smiled. “Keep it. A token of good faith; I want nothing to do with your blood, Kara Danvers. I hope you trust that I still bear you no ill will.”

 

            “I do,” Kara mumbled, shoving the fabric into a deep pocket and clutching it tightly in her hand for a moment longer.

 

            “And this is yours as well,” Lena slyly continued, holding out a hand with the scarred leather compass case nestled in her palm.

 

            “How did you-”

 

            Kara whirled around, eyes scanning the carpet of wet grass surrounding them, looking for the abandoned compass that she’d kicked for good measure. Turning back around, she pursed her lips for a moment and made a sound of discontent, before reaching out for it.

 

            With a playful spark in her eyes, Lena jerked it back out of her reach and held up a finger, cautioning her to be patient. “One moment, if you please.”

 

            Her breath came out as a stream of white fog as she gently blew on the case, cradling it in her palms like it was made of glass. With a soft sigh, her eyelashes fluttered against her cheeks like the gentle beating of a butterfly’s wings and Lena opened her eyes, straightening up and holding the compass back out to Kara.

 

            “Now you’ll never get lost trying to find me. Hold this in your hands and think of me and it’ll point you right towards wherever I am. Although I should warn you, I spend a lot of time wandering. The hills, the mountains, the sea, the moors and bogs.”

 

            “I happen to like walking,” Kara said, reaching out for her compass and dropping it back into her pocket, right alongside the handkerchief. “Just … perhaps not right at the moment.”

 

            Lightly laughing, Lena looped her arm through the crook of Kara’s elbow and steered her around, “come. It’s not a very far walk.”

 

            Inclining her head in acknowledgement, Kara fell into step beside Lena, feeling meek and nervous as they walked down the sloping hill arm in arm. Despite the dishevelled appearance of the witch, she held herself like a noble lady, and Kara felt like an inadequate escort in her shabby clothes, tripping over her own feet on the uneven ground as her blisters painfully rubbed and her stomach tied itself into knots.

 

            They walked in silence for a while, Lena seemingly enjoying the fresh air as she strolled along at a brisk pace, face upturned to the sky and the wind, while Kara was left restlessly keeping pace with her, feeling the urge to say something yet not knowing how to break the silence. All she could focus on was the tang of salt and sea that clung to Lena, the edge of her cloak flecked with dried sand and salt crusted in her tangled hair, amidst leaves and pine needles. It was intoxicating, mingling with the rich, earthy smell that clung to her, the soothing aroma of herbs and moss and wood smoke that was ingrained in the weave of her clothes.

 

            Eventually, she was spared the arduous task of scrambling for even a modicum of something interesting to spark a conversation when Lena spoke, cutting off Kara’s latest speechless stammering as she turned her green eyes on her. They were so striking that Kara faltered for a step, only managing to catch herself and stumble onwards because of Lena’s hold on her.

 

            “How’s your sister, might I ask?”

 

            “Oh, um, she’s very well, thank you,” Kara smiled down at her, “she recovered extraordinarily fast.”

 

            “I’m glad to hear it. And I’m sure she’s marvelling at her constitution?”

 

            The unspoken question weighted Lena’s words and Kara quickly nodding, a solemn expression on her face. “She’s none the wiser.”

 

            “Excellent.”

 

            Some lingering tension seemed to fade from Lena and they continued their journey across the hills and fields, passing by cows grazing at long grass, abandoning their meal to make a beeline for the witch. Lena just waved a hand in a dismissive manner, fingers tapping out a strange rhythm as they contorted, before the cows went back to their grazing. She gave Kara a sideways look and a wry smile.

 

            “Witches are very in tune with nature. Animals just … flock to us. I don’t suppose you noticed the silence in the woods where I live, did you?”

 

            “Yes.”

 

            “I had to put up a boundary spell to keep out the larger animals and birds. I once woke up to a goat eating my curtains through an open window and a wayward horse managed to break down my door with a good kick. They’re drawn to the smell of magic, you see. They can sense it better than humans, being more in tune with nature.”

 

            “Oh. I would’ve thought that they …”

 

            Arching an eyebrow, Lena glanced up at her with curiosity. “What?”

 

            Shrugging, Kara gave her a strained smile and rubbed the back of her neck, “nothing. I just- well, people always say animals are a good judge of character. And seeing as witches are somewhat lacking in good character - to most folk - I originally assumed that perhaps you … scared the creatures off. I’ve never heard such deafening silence beneath the trees before.”

 

            “Ah, well, you’re not wrong exactly. Those who dabble in darker and more twisted arts to carry a malevolent aura and animals can sense that in them. I believe them to be excellent judges of character, especially where sinister intentions are concerned. As we’ve established, I don’t hold with such practices, so … here we are, on the brink of being smothered by darling cows vying for my attention.”

 

            “I imagine there are worse ways to go.”

 

            “The stake being the top of the list for someone with my profession,” Lena grimly agreed.

 

            “Does it- does it happen often? Genuinely?”

 

            Deliberating for a moment, Lena quietly hummed, a pensive look clouding her delicate features. She let out a faint sigh as she kept her eyes fixated on something in the distance.

 

            “Not often are witches caught. Most burnings are just ordinary humans meddling in dangerous affairs, but occasionally there’s a real one. Usually, it comes from wrongfully placed trust in humans.”

 

            She peered sideways at Kara in a wary manner, before a smile spread across her face at Kara’s wide-eyed stammering.

 

            “Helping the wrong person out of good intentions. Fear and hatred have been bred into people that even acts of kindness and goodness can lead to one of us tied to a pole. It’s why we’ve become a reclusive breed of people. Covens have dwindled down, gatherings are few and far between, and we mostly keep to ourselves and use our familiars to keep track of each other.”

 

            “It must be lonely.”

 

            “Deep in my heart I know I’m a loner. I’ve tried to blend in with the world and be sociable, but the more people I meet, the more disappointed I am. I’ve come to learn that we’re each alone, really - some more than others, but all of us nonetheless - but the secret is that even when I’m alone, I enjoy myself immensely. I love to wander alone through the woods and trees and go out by myself at night and watch the stars and the moon and see what they have to say about my future.”

 

            “Do they say much?” Kara eagerly asked, her voice coloured with fascination as she stared down at Lena with wonder.

 

            With a peal of soft laughter, Lena bumped her slightly with her shoulder as she leant in conspiratorially. “Oh, yes. The stars speak endlessly, and the moon … well, she is contrary and unpredictable, the wildest of magics, but when she gives you a sure sign, you would do well to heed it.”

 

            Darkness was creeping in, the hazy blue of dusk blurring the edges of the world and day bled into night, and Kara craned her head back, looking up at the halo of white light shining brightly from behind a thin veil of clouds.

 

            “What’s she saying tonight?”

 

            Lena’s voice was low as she replied, making the back of Kara’s neck ripple with goosebumps as she suppressed a shiver, enjoying the soft murmur of her lilting words. 

 

            “She’s saying … we’re almost home and it’s bastard freezing outside so we should hurry,” she quietly joked.

           

            With a snort of laughter, Kara gave her a small smile, eyes creasing at the corners and looked ahead, taking in the shadowed beginnings of the small woods Lena’s humble cottage lived in. Despite the fact she’d only been their once before, Kara felt relief at the fact that they were nearly there, thinking of the comforting fire that awaited her and a chair to sit on as she rested her travel sore feet. With renewed vigour and eagerness, she was almost towing Lena along with her as she upped her pace.

 

            They slipped into the coniferous thicket without a sound, footsteps muffled by the carpet of pine needles, crushing them underfoot and releasing their sweet perfume. It was as silent as last time, like a shroud of hushed quietness had descended over the night, with only the rustling of leaves and needles and creaking branches, and Kara felt the thrum of magic heavy in the air, almost palpable against her prickling skin.

 

            Summoning a ball of white light, Lena held it aloft, basket dangling from the crook of her arm, and they moved through the trees like wraiths, Kara trying her best not to trip over roots and hidden twigs. This time there was none of the disorienting whispers in her mind, guiding her towards the cottage, chasing after Lena’s shadow, and when they finally broke into the small clearing, the cottage stood dark and cold before them.

 

            Squashing the light in her palm, Lena waved her hand and the door creaked open on groaning hinges, the black mouth of the door yawning open with a sense of foreboding. Striding inside, Lena touched the wick of a candle and a small orange glow lit up the darkness with a welcoming halo. Kara stepped over the threshold after her and slowly shut the door behind her, slipping off her mud-caked boots as she watched Lena leave her basket on the table and move towards the fire.

 

            As Kara shed the fragile warmth her coat offered her, hanging it over the back of a chair, she padded over the cobblestone floor, wincing at the bubbles of blisters, and watched as Lena knelt before the cold hearth. Ashes were piled up in the grate, and Lena stacked dry logs on top, before whispering something and breathing over them. A fire roared to life as if it had always been there, bathing everything in a deep red glow and Kara shivered at the sudden warmth.

 

            “Come. Sit.”

 

            She did as instructed and eased herself down onto the wooden chair closest to the fire, hunching over to prop her elbows up on her knees as she stared into the flickering flames.

 

            “Tea?” Lena offered, already hanging the big kettle over the fire.

 

            Kara watched as she lugged a big iron pot, almost akin to a cauldron, over to the fire as well and set it in the middle of the coals, just below the kettle. Something sloshed around inside and Kara wondered what Lena was brewing there.

 

            “Can I ask you something?”

 

            “Sure,” Lena shrugged, climbing to her feet and dusting off her hands, before she pulled off her thick cloak and hung it up beside the door. 

 

            She was wearing a long black skirt and an emerald shirt, both made from thick cotton, roughspun and meant to withstand hard work. As Kara watched, she pulled a white apron on over the top and rolled her sleeves up, before moving back towards the table and glancing at Kara expectantly.

 

            “Why don’t you just heat the water with magic?” Kara blurted out.

 

            With a quick, fleeting laugh, Lena gave her a wide smile. “Sometimes it’s nice to sing for my supper, you know? I could heat the water in a heartbeat, like I lit the fire, but there’s something … organic about letting the leaves steep in the water. Letting it brew on its own. Same with cooking. It’s … soothing to do things with my own hands.”

 

            “But you could?”

 

            “I could, yes.”

 

            “What can you do with your magic? What are the limits?”

 

            Humming, Lena picked up an empty basin and carried it over to a hand pump in the corner, cranking it a few times before fresh water spouted from the mouth of it, splashing into the wooden tub. She carried it back over to the table and set it down heavily, water threatening to spill over the sides by the careless way Lena thumped it down, before she moved her hand over the swirling water in a clockwise motion. 

 

            “Well, it’s not quite so simple as waving my hands and having everything miraculously appear. Like I said before, we’re very in tune with nature. Most of our power lies in herbs and plants, animals and earth and fire. Blood and bone and water. Even wind.”

 

            As she spoke, steam started to snake up from the water in thin tendrils, and Lena reached up above her head to pull down some dried leaves hanging from the old rafters. She absentmindedly picked some and tossed them in, idly flicking her fingers to keep the water spinning around in a small vortex.

 

            “I can’t make gold appear, although I can draw gold nuggets from the earth. I can’t fix broken bones with the snap of a hand, although I can guide the pieces back together and help the pain disappear. I can’t fly or breathe underwater, but I can manipulate the wind currents or bring air bubbles to me to provide more oxygen. It’s not a precise thing, magic. It can just as easily betray you as obey.”

 

            “Was it risky, healing my sister?”

 

            Lena’s expression darkened for a moment as she reached for some dried flowers Kara didn’t know the name of, crumbling them up over the water and filling the cabin with the sweet smell of it. Then came more herbs and something Kara thought was sea salt, and she wondered what Lena might be cooking for them.

 

            “The only risky part was entering the town. Otherwise, they were basic healing charms. Clearing the lungs, reducing the fever, drawing the poison out of her blood and taking away her pain. One could just as easily do as much with the right ingredients and no magic at all, if only they weren’t afraid of being branded a witch.”

 

            “How did you learn all this?”

 

            “My mother,” Lena curtly replied.

 

            With a sudden movement, Lena swept the basin off the table and moved around to Kara, before setting it down on the floor in front of her. It was steaming a little less, cooled to the perfect temperature by Lena, and the witch stood before her with a stern look on her face.

 

            “Enough questions now. Socks off and feet in.”

 

            “What?”

 

            “You winced every step of the way home and said as much earlier. Let me take a look at them.”

 

            Kara’s face flushed red with embarrassment as she straightened up in her seat, brushing her hair out of her face. “Oh, it’s fine, really. Just a few blisters.”

 

            “The water will help,” Lena assured her, “I can draw the fluid out as well.”

 

            Shifting before her demanding gaze, Kara softly sighed and then relented, shedding her threadbare socks and rolling up the cuffs of her trousers, before hesitantly dipping one foot into the warm water.

 

            Her relief was immediate, the tension left behind by pain fleeing from her shoulders as the muscles unwound, and she hurriedly thrust the other foot in as well. The herbs and flowers floated around her shins and she wiggled her frozen toes as the prickled with the sudden heat. The stinging soreness faded straight away and Kara leant back on the chair, glancing up at Lena, who was looking at her with satisfaction.

 

            “Soak them for a bit and then I’ll take a look. Witch’s orders.”

 

            “Yes, ma’am,” Kara quietly laughed.

 

            She relaxed as her feet soaked in the hot water and watched Lena move around the cosy cabin with ease. A loaf of bread that she must’ve baked that morning was cut into slices, a lump of creamy butter was brought out and smeared over the slices, as well as a soft wedge of goat cheese. Before long, the kettle was faintly screeching and Kara found herself sipping at a sweet pink tea made from rosemary and raspberry.

 

            As Lena stirred the big pot on the fire, Kara’s nose was assaulted with the smell of food and her stomach rumbled as she realised that it was some sort of stew. She was so hungry that it was almost painful, and she found herself grateful once more for Lena’s hospitality, finding herself a welcomed guest once more.

 

            “So, what were you gathering down by the shore?” Kara asked, cradling her cup in her hands as she breathed in the soothing smell of it as it warmed her hands.

 

            “A certain type of algae that only grows near saltwater. And some shells. Bit of seaweed too, and I found a few feathers and scales; they’re always handy for potions and spells.”

 

            “What kind of potion were you trying to make?”

 

            “It was for a cleansing ritual. I do them each month to banish the bad energy and anything from the sea is good. The sea is all about changes and flows with the phases of the moon, so it holds a special kind of magic.”

 

            “Oh.”

 

            “Here.”

 

            Lena ladled a mountain of stew into a ceramic bowl and handed it to Kara, who hastily put her cup down on the table, twisting her torso as her feet remained planted firmly in the healing waters. Steam billowed up to her face and she looked down at the thick stew of vegetables and some sort of meat. 

 

            Fetching herself a bowl and sitting close to Kara, Lena waved her hand and two spoons flew across the room, one gently splashing into Kara’s bowl and making her jump slightly. Stirring the spoon around in the stew, she eyed the carrots and turnips and onions, finding nothing unusual in it, before she glanced up at Lena, who was dipping a slice of buttered bread into her own bowl.

 

            “What kind of meat is this?” Kara asked, scooping a spoonful up and raising it to her mouth. “I just- I noticed you don’t have any animals here, as you said. And where did you get the butter and cheese from? Is there a town nearby? Surely they must wonder about you if you always go there? And what-”

 

            “Slow down!” Lena gently chided her with amusement, “eat, before your food gets cold, and I’ll answer.”

 

            Ducking her head as her cheeks flooded with warmth, Kara let out a quiet laugh and reached for a slice of bread. It was soft and somehow still warm and she took a quick bite under Lena’s watchful gaze.

 

            “The meat is rabbit. No, there aren’t any animals here, as I said, but on my wanderings, I come across a lot of them. This one is from a particular rabbit who got caught in a trap and snapped its leg. It was beyond my healing so I put it out of its misery. There are plenty of cows around who are patient enough to let me steal some milk, the same with goats, so I make my own cheese and butter. I steal eggs from nests and catch fish in the rivers or at the sea. I never take more than I need and don’t particularly take pleasure in hunting, but I do what I must to survive because, as you said, there’s more than one town around here and it would be a little conspicuous if I wandered in as I am.”

 

            “Do you ever wish you could live in a real town?” Kara asked around a mouthful of the stew.

 

            “No. They’re dirty and smelly and people are rude. What could be better than fresh air and space and time to think and talk to animals? I do occasionally have to sneak into one though for things I can’t find out here - cloth being one of them. Mostly I just make do by myself.”

 

            Kara was quiet for a moment, absentmindedly stirring her food as she chewed on her mouthful. Glancing up at Lena, she tilted her head to the side and gently bit her lip as she hesitated, a question on the tip of her tongue.

 

            “How- how long have you been here by yourself?”

 

            “Since I turned sixteen and was initiated as a full witch,” Lena murmured. “It’s been ten years now.”

 

            Surprise flooded through Kara as her eyebrows rose and her lips parted slightly, her shoulders dropping with unknown relief. She hadn’t realised how mortal Lena was, although she’d rankled at Kara’s accusations last time and made a flippant comment about her looks, but it was a relief to know she wasn’t some centuries-old witch wandering the countryside and the coast, all alone with nothing but time. It was somewhat comforting to know that she was even younger than Kara was, just as mortal, and perhaps as inexperienced as she was in some aspects, although there was wisdom in her green eyes.

 

            “What about you?” Lena shot back, eyes narrowing with curiosity, “what do you do? Where do you come from?”

 

            With a quiet scoff, Kara shrugged nonchalantly, scooping carrots and rabbit into her mouth and savouring the taste as the pit of hunger was satiated. Sitting by the crackling fire with food and tea and herbs for her sore feet, Kara felt perfectly at ease, comfortable in Lena’s presence and she couldn’t help but trust the witch, despite the fact that every story and rumour she’d ever heard told her not to. But she paid that price to Lena the last time they’d met; her trust in exchange for Alex’s good health, and so Kara swallowed her mouthful and met her level stare.

 

            “I work at the printer, making books,” Kara said with a small smile, “I was born in a town further north, but my parents died of a sickness that took half of the village when I was thirteen. My older cousin took me from there and left me with a couple in town. My new mother works as a seamstress, making pretty dresses and coats for the royal family. Her husband died in service to the crown.”

 

            “Ah, yes, the crown,” Lena snorted, a bitter twist to her lips, “the pioneers of witch hunts and puritanism.”

 

            “I suppose you have good enough reason to hate them,” Kara hedged.

 

            “Good enough,” Lena agreed in a clipped tone. “Now, eat up and I’ll take a look at your feet.”

 

            Kara watched as she drained the rest of her tea in one gulp and set her empty bowl down on the table, before climbing to her feet. Fetching clean rolls of linen and a pair of sheers, Lena knelt down on the stone floor and eased Kara’s feet out of the tub of water. The loss of the warmth made her skin ripple with goosebumps, but Lena’s hands quickly moved over them and they were suddenly bone dry.

 

            Still, the blisters stung with the absence of the soothing herbs and Kara watched on with fascination, stew forgotten about as she clutched the bowl in her hand and watched Lena wave her hands through various motions. Kara couldn’t see the pattern to it, although it was surely there, but she felt the pain recede with the strange sensation of something being drained from her feet. It felt like a splinter being drawn from the skin and it wasn’t altogether a pleasant experience.

 

            Yet, when Lena pulled back, the blisters had been drained of their blood and fluid and the skin was nearly smooth again, if a little raw. Unfurling the lengths of linen, Lena tightly bound her feet with practised ease, until Kara was staring down at two heavily bandaged lumps at the end of her legs.

 

            “There. I’ll give you a salve to put on it; it’ll help.”

 

            “Thank you.”

 

            “You should be off soon, though. I don’t imagine your family would take it well if you didn’t come home tonight. What with the vicious witches roaming the wilds.”

 

            She said it was a sharp smile, a sly glint to her eyes as she fetched a small container from a cluttered shelf, eyeing the label and curling her hand around it. Kara couldn’t help but smile in wry amusement at the joke, knowing that her family would think just that.

 

            “No, I don’t suppose they would.”

 

            “It’s a long walk - do you know your way?”

 

            “I should think so, now that my mind isn’t addled with your spells.”

 

            With another smile, Lena took the empty bowl from her hands, shocking Kara as she looked down into it, not remembering finishing it, although she felt so full that she must’ve, and then pressed the salve into her palm.

 

            “Be watchful of your knives as well. You’re easy prey for the right hunter.”

 

            She was so close that Kara felt her stomach clench with a deep-rooted yearning, her heart hammering in her chest as her breathing turned shallow. Up close she could see Lena’s chapped lips, softened from the warmth of the tea, and she licked her lips as her eyes darted down to them and back up to the sparkling green eyes.

 

            “Water,” Kara blurted out.

 

            “What’s that?” Lena asked, head cocked to the side.

 

            “Your eyes. They’re like water. Like the river, where the trees lean over it and turn it green. Or the sea on a pale day. Or a … pond.”

 

            With a scoff of laughter, Lena’s eyebrows rose with delighted mirth. “A pond? How romantic of you, Miss Danvers.”

 

            “I- well, I-” Kara stammered, looking down at her bound feet, cheeks pink and a nervous laugh bubbling up. “I like … ponds.”

 

“I’m glad to hear it. Come, get your coat and I’ll see you out.”

 

            Bobbing her head in a nod as Kara stared down at her feet, she gathered up her coat and jammed her hands in through the sleeves, buttoning it up and dropping the salve into her other pocket. Picking up her sword belt, she buckled it on, sword knocking against her side, and shoved her feet into boots that she was sure Lena had magicked dry.

 

            Ready to leave, Kara ducked out of the door, only to stop at the gentle weight of a hand on her sleeve. She looked back at Lena with wide eyes, face still somewhat flushed with embarrassment, and watched as the witch took a step in close, the smell of salt and moss enveloping her in the most intoxicating smell that Kara would’ve believed that it was witchcraft in itself.

 

            “The sky,” Lena whispered, her breath fanning against Kara’s cheek, “your eyes look like the sky at dusk. That hour where everything’s blue just after the sun slips beyond the horizon.”

 

            She pulled back, leaving Kara looking at her with a wordless look of surprise on her face, lips parted and eyes even wider. “Oh. Okay.”

 

            With a soft smile curling her mouth, Lena looked at her for a moment, before letting out a quiet laugh that made Kara’s insides clench.

 

            “I like the sky at that hour.”

Chapter Text

            The seasons were turning the next time that Kara went to visit Lena, the day damp with a neverending drizzle and a chill that seeped into her bones as she tramped across the boggy, wet fields. Sleet and snow had melted into frigid puddles of mud that splashed up onto the hem of Kara’s threadbare coat as her teeth chattered together, scabbard tangling with her lanky legs as she made big strides through the shin-deep dewy grass.

 

            In one hand, she held out the compass Lena had enchanted, watching the needle hover gently back and forth as it pointed in one general direction. The front of her blue coat was lumpy as Kara clutched her other arm to herself, the soft bundle of fabric pressing against her and creating a barrier against the flurries of wind that battered her backwards. 

 

            Despite the fine mist of rain, Kara was soaked through by the time she’d made the long, footsore trip towards Lena, blonde hair dark with water and clinging to her forehead. Clutching the compass in one hand, she wiped her sleeve across her face, red-nosed and cheeks bitten from the dreary drizzle and cold wind. 

 

            Eyes bluer than the sky, Kara narrowed them to slits as beads of water clumped her eyelashes together, and stared out at the silent hills sloping up in the distance. It wouldn’t be that much further, just past the next few farms, through a few paddocks of glum cows and sheep, and then she reckoned she’d be able to see the dark patch of forest at least. 

 

            The thought of Lena’s company, and perhaps a hot cup of nettle tea, was enough to spur her onwards, boots sinking into soft mud. Clambering over a rickety fence of warped wood, Kara waded through tall grass and hopped across a trickle of a stream, rocks slick with moss and lichen, before she struggled up the opposite bank. 

 

            Over a crumbling brick wall bisecting two fields, past a herd of cows laying in the shade of a withered oak tree, greeted by a quick wave as Kara hurried by, she crested a small hill, calves burning, and started down the slope on the other side. Two more hills, growing in size as she ground clover and wild mustard underfoot, and she found herself staring down at the valley with the copse of trees clumped into the shallow end of it. 

 

            She’d taken a more scenic route than she took when walking home from visiting Lena to deter anyone following after her, and with a furtive glance around to make sure no one was around to bear witness to her misdeeds, she started down the slippery, rock-strewn side of the hill and made her way towards the witch’s cottage tucked away in the trees.

 

            The usual hush descended over her as she stepped beneath the bare boughs of elms and aspens, crushing the carpet of fir needles underfoot, muffling her footsteps and masking her approach as she stepped around junipers and pines, moving branches out of her way as she tried to be as unobtrusive as possible. The compass was neatly tucked away inside her pocket, of no use to her now; she knew the way.

 

            Her breath hung before her in a white cloud as she crept through the forest, still, save for the creaking of branches and gentle sighing of what few leaves had survived the winter, and her heart fluttered nervously in her chest. The air was heavy with the oppressive feeling of magic and the anticipation of seeing the unusual witch again made Kara’s stomach lurch with excitement as she followed the way towards the cottage with a clear mind.

 

            Stepping into a small clearing, she came to a stop before the dark cottage. Spirits plummeting, Kara’s hopeful expression dropped as she looked at the dark windows and locked door, no smell of wood smoke lingering on the air, and she frowned as she stepped towards the door. Reaching out, she tried the doorknob and found it locked, and despite the fact that she knew no one was home, she rapped on the door.

 

            After futilely waiting a few minutes, scuffing her worn boots along the ground in an anxious manner, Kara sighed with disappointment. Thinking of the long walk back home, dreary and wet, she hesitated before pulling the compass back out of her pocket and flicking the cover open with her thumb. The needle still held a steady course and she pursed her lips for a moment, looking up.

 

            Rounding the cottage, Kara crept through the damp forest, listening to beads of rain drip off groaning branches, the stifling silence and absence of birds and wildlife making her shoulders tense, she followed the wavering needle. Pushing through the bracken, Kara peered through the dimness of the faint green light filtering down through the canopy overhead, feeling like an intruder in the serene peacefulness of the woods.

 

            And then she saw her by a flicker of movement, even though she was looking right at her, compass needle pointing in a straight line. With her deep green cloak, almost black in the rich darkness of the colour, Lena was almost invisible in the shadows of the gnarled tree she stood before. Her back was to Kara, and only the flash of a pale hand betrayed her movements. Squinting, Kara’s face broke out into a wide smile as relief and delight washed over her.

 

            “Lena!”

 

            At the sound of her name being called, loud in the hushed quietness of the woods as it shattered the tenuous peace, Lena whirled around, eyes dark and face ghostly pale beneath the shadows. Kara made to step forward and froze, her skin prickling as the shadows seemed to lengthen, the light dimming and the hairs on the back of her neck standing on end.

 

            She could feel the magic humming in the air like a static charge and felt her mouth go dry as she shrunk back without actually moving. Her hair lifted as if on a gentle current, yet the world had come to a standstill as Lena loomed ominously before her in the dark.

 

            And then it was gone, just like that. The charge faded from the air and the wind rushed back through the branches, leaving Kara rooted to the spot as life and light flooded back in. Blinking in surprise, eyes wide and face ashen, Lena opened and closed her mouth, taking a hurried step forward.

 

            “Kara, I- you startled me.”

 

            On instinct, some deep-rooted fear she hadn’t managed to let go of yet rearing its head, Kara stumbled backwards as the witch moved towards her, tripping over a snaking root and dropping the compass as she pitched backwards.

 

            Landing on her back, Kara blinked back black spots as she struggled to catch her breath, the wind knocked out of her lungs as she’d slammed into the packed earth. Dazed, she stared up at the interwoven branches overhead, staring at the gaps where the sky was visible as stray raindrops slipped off leaves and needles and dropped onto her face. She blinked they away and lay there, listening to frantic footsteps crashing through ferns and trampling twigs, all of her usual gentle padding forgotten about in her haste.

 

            “Kara!”

 

            Blinking, Kara pushed herself up slightly, palms digging into the soft, wet earth, and bit back a hiss of pain before she looked up and met Lena’s eyes as the witch dropped to her knees beside her. Reaching out, Lena looked at her with wide eyes, full of panic and guilt.

 

            “Hello.”

 

            “I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to frighten you,” Lena breathlessly apologised, tripping over her words as she looked at Kara with wariness in the depths of her wide green eyes.

 

            Sitting further upright, Kara let out a strained laugh and wiped her hands, trying to remove the clinging soil and streaks of dirt. “I didn’t mean to frighten you either.”

 

            “I didn’t hear you coming. No one comes here.”

 

            With a small crooked smile, Kara’s expression softened as her eyes crinkled at the corners. “Sorry, I used the compass. I thought I’d- well, it’s been a few weeks. It’s the first chance I’ve had to sneak away and-”

 

            “I’m glad you’re here,” Lena blurted out, cutting her off mid-sentence as she gave her a shy look.

 

            Smiling brightly, Kara’s eyebrows rose in delight, her cheeks warming slightly. She was glad for the darkness beneath the trees, glad that Lena couldn’t see the way her face turned pink, or how her pupils dilated a fraction. 

 

            “I’m interrupting,” Kara murmured, a sheepish smile flitting across her face, “you’re busy.”

 

            “Collecting herbs.”

 

            “For spells?”

 

            “Healing. Cooking. And yes, some spells. Would you care to learn?”

 

            Pausing for a moment, Kara opened and closed her mouth, unease knotting her stomach at the thought of becoming an accomplice to witchcraft. Whether they truly were for cooking or healing, consorting with witches was a sin in itself, and Kara was hesitant to risk her life in pursuit of a precarious friendship with Lena. 

 

            And yet, she couldn’t help herself. There was a part of her so curious and intrigued by Lena’s vastly different world that she couldn’t stop the yes that fell from her lips before she’d even fully weighed the consequences her actions could bring.

 

            “Yes.”

 

            A smile flashed across Lena’s face, delightfully surprised with a sharp edge of mischief, enjoying Kara’s rebelliousness. She hadn’t thought the meek young woman would agree so readily, despite her fleeting moment of uncertainty, and she quickly climbed to her feet. Brushing leaves and dirt from her skirts, Lena reached out a slender hand, which Kara looked at for a moment, before slipping her own into it.

 

            Despite the cold, Lena’s hands were warm. Her palms were calloused and crescents of dirt were beneath her fingernails, and yet her touch was so gentle as she pulled Kara to her feet that she clung to her for a moment longer. Staring down at their joined hands, she felt her stomach lurch with nerves and quickly let go, eyes glancing up to meet Lena’s as she smiled faintly.

 

            Flexing her hand, Kara cleared her throat and touched the lumpy front of her coat, fingers fumbling with the brass buttons as she undid the front of it. 

 

            “Wait one second. I, uh, I brought you something.”

 

            Caught unawares by her words, Lena looked taken aback by the offer of a gift, and a spark of intrigue made her step in closer, head cocked to the side, eyes watchful and narrowed with curiosity.

 

            “What is it?”

 

            Pulling the folded bundle of green from beneath her coat, feeling the loss of warmth it had provided, Kara held it closely in her hands for a moment, lips pressed together as a pensive look clouded her face. Thumbs rubbing the thick, soft cotton, she gave Lena a sceptical look, hesitant and unsure, before she shook it out with a flourish.

 

            It was a cloak as green as the forest, like moss or a stagnant pool of green water, of the patchwork countryside and fresh leaves bursting to life in spring. Thickly woven wool unfurled towards the ground, and Kara smiled shyly, her cheek dimpling as she held it up for Lena to see.

 

            “It’s a new cloak. It’s been a cold winter and I know spring’s right around the corner, but I … I saw it and I thought of you out here in the cold. I thought it could keep you warm. You like green, right?”

 

            Expression softening, Lena reached out to take the cloak from her, running the fabric through her fingers, before she clutched it to her chest. Lena looked like she was struggling with her thoughts, struggling to find the words, and Kara looked at her with childlike innocence, blue eyes wide and hopeful.

 

            “Green is … perfect,” Lena said, the words coming out thick and slightly hoarse, ragged with hidden emotions. “Thank you. This is … so very thoughtful. No one’s ever bought me a gift before.”

 

            A smile cut through the anxious look on Kara’s face as she lit up with pleasure, clasping her hands together as her shoulders slumped with relief. She’d been worried that Lena would think it too presumptuous of her, would take offence of the fact that Kara thought she needed her help, that she might feel embarrassed at the fact that Kara had noticed the threadbare cloak she was currently wearing. 

 

            But Lena couldn’t take her worn cloak off fast enough, throwing her new lighter green one around her shoulders and clasping it at the front. She wrapped herself up in it, an emerald cocoon, and smiled faintly as she closed her eyes, a contented sigh slipping from parted lips.

 

            “It’s so warm. Thank you, truly.”

 

            “It’s my pleasure.”

 

            Holding her old, ragged cloak in her hands, Lena closed her eyes for a moment, a crease furrowing between her eyebrows, and a heartbeat later, grey smoke started curling from the fabric. Flickers of white flame licked at her fingers and Kara watched on with fascination, ignoring the foul odour of damp sheep that came from burning wool until the cloak was nothing more than a few ashes drifting down to the leaf-strewn ground.

 

            “Shall we be on our way?” Lena quietly asked, her voice soft and lilting in the dark.

 

            Nodding, Kara suppressed a shiver, digging her hands into her pockets. Her damp hair curled at her hairline and the cold that had seeped into her bones was barely noticeable now, a constant state of numbness that made her fingernails purple and fingers stiff, yet she readily agreed to accompany Lena through the woods to pick herbs and breathe in the fresh air.

 

            “What were you collecting here?”

 

            “Willow bark,” Lena stated, leaning down to pick up her wicker basket, “it’s good for pain if you chew it.”

 

            “Okay, and what are we looking for now?”

 

            With a sideways conspiratorial glance, a slow smile spread across Lena’s face, “whatever we find as we walk. Dandelions, burdock, yarrow, garlic, lemon balm and blackberry leaves. Lavender, comfrey and elderberry. Birch. Thyme and mint. Even poisonous mushrooms.”

 

            “P-poisonous mushrooms? Why do you …”

 

            “Oh, don’t worry, I’m not going to poison anyone with them. There’s a certain type of wild mushroom that, when boiled thrice to leach the poison from it, can be used in sleeping draughts to induce good dreams. It’s got certain … psychedelic properties. Witches also frequently use it in our rituals - you know, as a way to feel a connection with the earth. Some other mushrooms are just nice to brew into a tea.”

 

            “Mushroom tea?” Kara incredulously exclaimed, “well, now I’ve heard it all.”

 

            “Would you like to try some?”

 

            “As long as you’re sure I won’t die a long and painful death.”

 

            With a snort of laughter, Lena shook her head, cheeks dimpling with a smile. With a sigh of exasperated amusement, she looked at Kara as she looked her arm through hers.

 

            “I promise- God , you’re soaking!”

 

            Lena’s hand gripped the wet sleeve of Kara’s coat, cold and soaked through, the fabric heavy as it hung off Kara, who looked down at herself, shrugging self-consciously.

 

            “Oh, yes. It’s just drizzling but after walking in it for a few hours … it really seeps in.”

 

            Her lips trembled slightly with the cold as she curled her fingers into fists, giving Lena a stray smile before the witch pulled her to a stop. Eyebrows rising in a mild look of surprise, Kara gave her a questioning look as she turned.

 

            “Here.”

 

            Gently picking up her hands, Lena cradled them in her own, warm and dry and rough with years of working outdoors, and Kara felt her throat go dry. Kara stepped in closer, instinctively drawn to her, and Lena raised their entwined hands, bowing her head slightly. Mouth clamped shut, tongue-tied and bashful, Kara watched her, all the while Lena watched her too, looking at her from beneath her lashes.

 

            Slowly exhaling on their joined hands, a stream of bluish smoke streamed from Lena’s mouth and Kara’s breath caught in her throat as she watched with wide eyes, enraptured by the display of magic. Pins and needles prickled her fingertips and she felt a seeping warmth oozing up her arms, pooling in her shoulders and burrowing into her chest. And then down and down, to the soles of her feet and the tips of her toes. Heat spread throughout her entire body, chasing away the chill that had burrowed into her bones and leaving her feeling toasty and weary. 

 

            Even her clothes steamed, and Kara watched with amazement as faint tendrils drifted upwards and dissipated in the air, leaving her patched coat bone-dry and her hair curling, giving her a bedraggled look that Lena secretly thought was endearing. And once the blue smoke dissolved into nothing and she sucked in a deep lungful of fresh air, Lena held onto Kara’s hands for a moment longer, as if pretending that the spell still lingered, working its magic on Kara. Really, she was savouring the fleeting moments of contact that her soul craved so desperately.

 

            Finally, Lena blinked herself back to the moment and Kara watched with parted lips, her breathing shallow and halting, and relinquished her hold on her, uncertainty in her green eyes as she gave Kara a faint smile.

 

            “There. Much better.”

 

            “Thank you.”

 

            “Now, let’s go and find some herbs.”

 

            Smiling, Kara looped her arm through Lena’s this time, feeling like a chivalrous escort as they walked beneath the canopy of the trees, the muffled sound of rain a distant, comforting drone, the air cool and rich. The air felt close in the woods, the near-silence deafening, leaving Kara with her own thoughts and rapid heartbeat, feeling the warm pressure of Lena at her side as they walked. The witch steered her with gentle tugs this way and that.

 

            “See here? This is a birch tree. The bark is good for aching joints, skin rashes and purifying the blood in spring rituals. I’ll be doing the seasonal rites once the spring equinox is upon me, and birch bark is a very important ingredient.”

 

            Kara listened with rapt attention as Lena explained it to her, the low burr of her voice close and gentle. She felt like they were the only two people for miles and miles around, a world away from normalcy, and Kara watched with interest as Lena took a sharp knife from her wicker basket and started peeling off long curls of bark. They rolled up like the thick parchment Kara used at the printing shop, and Lena carefully nestled them amidst clusters of moss and willow bark, giving Kara a brilliant smile, her skin dappled green in the forest’s lighting.

 

            Over and over again, Lena led her through the woods, stopping whenever she caught sight of something useful. Belladonna, daisies and marigolds. Blessed thistle and withering hawthorn berries, foxglove and horsetail and fresh snowdrops blooming to life. There were so many plants that Kara had never heard of, never even seen before, blending in with the beauty of nature and wildlife. It was illuminating for her, a hoard of so much information that she struggled to keep up, marvelling at Lena’s apparent expertise.

 

            And that was just from within the confines of her small copse of trees. Kara wondered at the breadth of her knowledge, of what the witch would be able to find elsewhere, of how she’d come to know so much about healing and the art of poison. Lena had pointed out many plants to steer clear of, listing the hazardous side effects of what would befall Kara if she ingested, or even so much as touched some of them.

 

            “Ah! Mushrooms,” Lena declared, her eyes lighting up at the patch of white fungi almost glowing in the gloomy shade of a pine. “Shall we see if they’re the poisonous kind or the kind we can eat?”

 

            She towed Kara over to it and sank down to her knees, using her knife to cut one at the base of the stalk. Holding it up, she twirled it between thumb and forefinger and gave Kara a cursory smile, before she dug a gouge into the pale cap.

 

            “The poisonous ones turn yellow when you bruise them,” Lena murmured, holding it out into a shaft of pale sunlight for them both to watch. “The ones you can eat … they turn brownish-pink.”

 

            “Yellow,” Kara whispered as she watched the shallow cut in the cap turn the colour of saffron.

 

            “Perfect,” Lena smiled. “Here - smell it. They also have a different odour.”

 

            Reaching out to encircle Lena’s wrist, Kara steadied herself as she leant in and breathed in the tang of ammonia. Her eyebrows lifted and she pulled back, giving Lena an eager smile.

 

            “It smells like the ink we use on the printing press!”

 

            “It does,” Lena softly smiled.

 

            Stowing it in her basket, she cut the rest of them at the base of the stem and added them to her collection as Kara watched on with an apprehensive look in her eyes as if she wasn’t quite sure if collecting poisonous mushrooms was a good idea. 

 

            After foraging a few crabapples and black chestnuts, as well as a few parsnips, stunted and ghostly pale as Lena pulled them up from the rich soil before Kara stepped in them, they made the journey back to the cabin. Despite Lena’s drying spell that had left her warmed all the way through, a couple of hours wandering in the shade of the trees, pulling up roots and stripping leaves from bushes had left Kara’s hands red with the cold and sore in patches, and her pace quickened at the thought of a fire.

 

            Lena dawdled behind with her laden basket, skirts skimming the sprouting clumps of green grass with a quiet rustle as she silently walked along with a thoughtful look on her face. For all her lack of a sense of direction, Kara walked ahead, relying on Lena’s soft directions when she started straying the wrong way.

 

            “Kara?” Lena eventually called out.

 

            Slowing her pace, Kara turned, eyebrows rising in an unspoken question as she took slow, measured footsteps backwards.

 

            “I hope you don’t think it’s awfully rude of me to ask, but … why did you buy me a cloak and not a new coat for yourself? Only … I can’t help noticing that yours is a little … well, worse for wear. It’s not exactly warm weather.”

 

            Laughing, Kara’s foot got caught on a fallen log, her arms windmilling as she tried to catch her balance, taking a staggering misstep before righting herself. A self-deprecating smile graced her face before it grew smaller and she buried her hands in her pockets. Shoulders rising as she ducked her head, Kara fell into step beside Lena, looking down at the rotting underbrush as she breathed in the loamy smell of the earth.

 

            “This coat … it belonged to my father. I have very little left of my parents - most of it was burned to stop the spread of the sickness that took them and the town. All I have is this ratty old coat, his useless sword that, truthfully, I can’t even use, and this necklace of my mother’s. That’s all.”

 

            She pulled out the blue stone hanging from the length of silver from beneath the collar of her shirt and the lapels of her coat, quickly flashing Lena a glimpse before she safely tucked it away again, gently patting it in a reassuring manner.

 

            “I could buy a new coat with my earnings, and yes, perhaps I should , and, in fact, I own many coats - courtesy of my mother, the seamstress, and her failed attempts to force me into something a little less threadbare - but … I’m afraid of losing what little I have left of them. I know it sounds a bit silly, and ridiculous, considering I have to freeze my ass off in winter wearing it, but it just … it means a lot to me, and I’m a sentimental at heart.”

 

            With a small smile, she glanced sideways at Lena, head still ducked down as she let out a shy laugh.

 

            “Besides, I would rather buy you a cloak to keep you warm all the way out here. I know villages are dangerous for you - even the small ones - while the town doesn’t frighten me much. The most I have to worry about at the market is some little street urchin cutting my purse. And even then, there are guards crawling all over the place. No … I’d rather you stay safe.”

 

            “You hardly know me.”

 

            Rearing her head, Kara shrugged helplessly and gave her a mystified look, “and yet, I feel like I know you more than I should .”

 

            “You’re the only person who’s ever been kind to me, you know,” Lena said, a grave hardness to her face as her brow puckered.

 

            “I owe you a debt I can never repay, for my sister’s life. Kindness is the least I could offer, and is a paltry payment in return.”

 

            “Not to me.”

 

            Lena’s expression was solemn and earnest, warming Kara’s insides. She felt so flustered around the witch that she couldn’t even construct a reply, settling for ducking her head in acknowledgement and keeping pace with Lena as they made their way towards the cottage.

 

            It was a short walk away, and Kara’s spirits soared at the dark windows. Although the door had definitely been locked when she’d tried the handle, and despite the fact that Lena certainly didn’t produce a key, the door swung inwards beneath the fingertips of the witch, and she stepped inside, snapping her fingers with a spluttering of white sparks.

 

            Candles sprung to life as Kara followed her inside, chasing away the shadows, and Lena made for the fire, setting her basket down and starting a fire. The comforting smell of wood smoke soon filled the spacious room, orange warmth bathing the walls in its glow, and Kara unbuckled her sword belt and set it down beside the door.

 

            Cautiously taking a seat on a rickety wooden chair near the fire, she watched as Lena carefully undid her new cloak and fondly hung it up on a hook beside the door, her fingers lingering as she stroked the soft fabric before she collected her basket of herbs. 

 

            “Tea?”

 

            “If you don’t mind.”

 

            Crooking her finger towards a kettle, Lena let it drift over to the sink and pumped water into it, before it floated over to the fire and set itself over the flames to warm. Rolling the sleeves of her shirt up, Lena pumped water over her hands and scrubbed her hands with a thick bar of soap, bubbles and suds covering her hands as she furiously washed away the dirt with fastidious care. She rounded on Kara, drying her hands in a cloth, and jerked her head towards the sink with a smile. 

 

            “You’re welcome to wash up if you’d like. Foraging can be dirty work, and the soap is made from beeswax - it’s good for the skin.”

 

            Climbing to her feet, Kara moved over to the sink and heaved on the pump, cold water spilling over her hands and making the hairs on her arms stand on end. Lathering up the soap, she breathed in the spicy aroma of flowers cut through with honey, warm summer memories carried with it, and washed the dirt and stiffness from her hands.

 

            A hand held out a cloth to her and she quietly thanked Lena as she took it, drying her hands and slinging the cloth over her shoulder as she leant back against the basin and watched the witch move about in the kitchen.

 

            “Soup again, I’m afraid,” Lena sighed, “winter has plenty to offer if you know where to look, but nuts and berries can only get you so far. Hopefully, spring will bring a good harvest so I can replenish my stores.”

 

            “Oh, uh, don’t worry about me. I can have supper when I get home,” Kara quietly assured her, guilt creeping up on her at the thought of taking scarce food away from Lena.

 

            Eyes crinkling at the corners, Lena gestured a hand, waving her over. “After all your hard work gathering this with me? There’s plenty to go around, see? Come, you can help me cook.”

 

            Ducking her head in deference as she yielded, Kara peeled off her coat and tossed it onto the back of a chair, rolling the faded ink-splattered sleeves of her shirt up to her elbows, and stepped up beside Lena. Washing everything in the basket, Lena passed them along to Kara to chop with a sharp knife, before they went into a large pot. 

 

            Parsnips and wild garlic, leeks, withered carrots and potatoes, shrivelled radishes and green collards. As Kara watched on, Lena thrice boiled the mushrooms, as she’d said, and had her dice them too and toss them into the pot. Kara hesitated, knife slowing as she waited to see if Lena was jesting, but at the encouraging look on her face, did as instructed, tossing them in after the sprigs of rosemary Lena dropped in.

 

            With cups of nettle and red clover tea in hand, they both sat on a low divan that skittered across the room to stop before the fire at a wave of Lena’s hand, watching the soup bubble over the flames as chestnuts roasted in the embers, softening the tender meat. It was comfortable and warm, and Kara felt her eyes grow heavy. She found herself falling into such a state whenever she visited Lena, and couldn’t help but wonder if it was the product of the long walk and cosy atmosphere of the small cottage, or by some lingering effect of witchcraft clinging to her.

 

            “So … what made you want to work at the printing press?” Lena asked after a few minutes of comfortable silence, sipping tea and watching the flames.

 

            Shifting on the divan, Kara’s shoulders bunched up in a shrug as she cupped her tea in her lap, looking down at the pale pinkish liquid.

 

            “I, uh, I just liked to read growing up. I was fortunate to own a few books - well, my parents did - and I’d read them all day long. There was a scholar who used to tutor a few children in the village, and he had more books too. Ones that we didn’t have at home. I imagined that I’d like to read every book possible, and working at a printing press seemed like the best way to see that happen.”

           

            “And has it been everything you’ve dreamed of?”

 

            There was no mockery in Lena’s tone as she asked her question, yet Kara still laughed self-consciously, ducking her head down.

 

            “It has. It’s a … modest lifestyle. I like the smell of the ink and paper, and it’s a very rewarding process. Stitching the spines and covering them with leather, embossing the cover and carting them off to bookstores or to the palace. It’s … nice.”

 

            “Nice. Yes, I imagine it would be. And afterwards, you go home to your family; tell me more about them.”

 

            “My father was a tax collector for the village we lived in. He was good with numbers and was kind too, kind enough to overlook other people’s shortcomings. And my mother worked as a clerk for the town hall, sitting on the council and passing judgement on petty troubles. She was harder than my father; I guess that came with the job. We were … comfortable. And then they were taken by the fever.”

 

            Kara faltered for a moment, taking a sip of tea before continuing.

 

            “My new mother is a seamstress, as I already told you. She’s very good with a needle - makes all the prettiest embroidered coats and dresses. Most of the time she isn’t home because she’s too busy trying to finish her work. She’s very kind though, a terribly kind woman. And my sister, she works as- she’s a … my sister is a-”

 

            With a quiet laugh, Lena gave her a bewildered look, a soft smile curling her lips. “She’s a what?”

 

            Drawing in a shaky breath, Kara squeezed her eyes shut and winced with a shameful look on her face, “she’s a part of the crown’s task force of witch hunters. She … interrogates them to determine if they- if they have magic.”

 

            Lena went rigid beside her on the seat, stiffly raising her cup of tea to her thin, bloodless lips to take a sip, draining what was left and leaning forward to hold her cup out for the kettle to refill it.

 

            “I see,” she curtly replied as she sat back, steam curling from her fresh cup.

 

            “I didn’t want to tell you because- well, because I didn’t want you to think that I- you know I don’t believe what they say about your kind. And I didn’t want to lose your friendship over it.”

 

            With a snort of laughter, Lena looked at her sideways and gave her a sharp smile. “Don’t worry yourself about it, Kara.”

 

            “But I do,” Kara murmured, a solemn look on her face, “I do worry.”

 

            Sighing heavily, Lena angled her torso towards Kara and cocked her head to the side. “I know you believed what they said before you met me. And I know that you would think it of the rest of my kind if you bumped into them because they haven’t earned your trust as I have. I do not necessarily think that makes you a bad person, but that is just the narrow-minded view of magic that has been drilled into your head all your life. I don’t take the measure of a person by what their family has done; I like to form my own opinions, and I have.”

 

            “She doesn’t … you know, actually kill them. And it’s not torture. She just … she’s good at getting people to talk. She can spot a lie from a mile away.”

 

            “And how do you explain your trips here?”

 

            “I tell her I’m going for a walk and I’ll be back later, and that way it’s true and she never has to know.”

 

            Pursing her lips slightly, Lena narrowed her eyes, “tell me; what would she do if she knew the truth? Would she alert the witch hunters? Send them here with pitchforks and torches to drag me back to the town? Would she see me on a pyre?”

 

            “I- well … I don’t know,” Kara admitted, her brow furrowing with concern, darkness flickering in her eyes. “I’d like to think the best of my sister. She’s not a bad person, but as you said, it’s been drilled into us since we were born. I would hope … she’d listen to me. That she’d take my word seriously if it ever came to that.”

 

            “And if she didn’t? Would you let them take me? Would you stand aside, silently?”

 

            Kara’s stomach tied itself into knots as she gave Lena a stone-faced look, unusually hard as panic sparked in her eyes. She gripped her cup tightly, shoulders stiff as she swallowed, her mouth dry.

 

            “Why are you asking me this?”

 

            Waving a hand dismissively, Lena’s mouth twitched with a ghost of a smile, “curiosity.”

 

            “I’m not a coward,” Kara firmly replied, rankling slightly, “I’d do what’s right. I’d protect you.”

 

            Turning to face her, Lena leant in closer, reaching out to cup Kara’s chin in her wiry fingers, her grip gentle but firm. Giving her a searching look, she let out a light laugh, eyebrows rising as her expression went slack.

 

            “Oh, God, you truly mean that, don’t you?”

 

            “Of course,” Kara whispered, so softly that the words were barely audible over the crackling logs and bubbling soup.

 

            “Then you’re a bigger fool than I thought you were,” Lena kindly chided, “and you’ll do no such thing if ever a time comes.”

 

            She dropped her hand and Kara keenly felt the loss of her warm touch, an ache flaring up in her chest as she stared forlornly at Lena. Taking a sip of tea, Kara looked down, eyebrows pulling together as she brooded, a pout to her lips.

 

            “I think I’d do it all the same.”

 

            “They’d kill you, you know,” Lena softly warned her. “They rarely catch real witches. I imagine your sister has sent dozens of innocents to the stake, and you’d become one of them as a sympathiser.”

 

            “And you? You wouldn’t curse me within an inch of my life for bringing them to your doorstep?”

 

            Deliberating for a moment, mouth thinning into a grimace, Lena eventually shook her head and reached out to set her half-empty tea down. Climbing to her feet, she brushed a hand over her skirts and stepped towards the fire.

 

            “No, I don’t think I would.”

 

            Without so much as flinching, she plucked the pot from within the flames and Kara let out a small cry of panic, leaping to her feet. Lena gave her a faint smirk as she carried the pot over to the scarred table and set it down in the middle.

 

            Stepping up beside her, Kara reached out and grabbed her hand, turning it over to stare at the perfectly white palm, coarse from hard work but otherwise unharmed. Eyes wide, she looked up at Lena with shock, feeling almost weak with relief.

 

            “A little cooling spell and I can handle molten gold if I want to,” Lena informed her.

 

            Roasted chestnuts floated from the coals to the table, and Lena removed the tender flesh from inside the scorched shells, before stirring them into the pot. Ladling watery soup into two bowls, Lena handed one to Kara and then carried hers back over to the fire with Kara in tow, and they ate in companionable silence for a few moments.

 

            “So, what about you?” Kara eventually ventured, curiosity sparking inside her.

 

            “What about me?” Lena deflected.

 

            With a breathless laugh, Kara gave her a pointed look, “well, how were you born? How are witches made? Where were you born?”

 

            Laughter sparkled in Lena’s eyes as she gave Kara a haughty look, “well, when a witch and a warlock love each other very much they-”

 

            Cheeks flaming red, Kara waved a hand, “okay, yes, I know how that part works, thank you. But … is it passed on? Or are witches just … born?”

 

            “Both,” Lena simply replied, “it can be hereditary, although sometimes two parents with magic will just as easily give birth to a child without it, and sometimes children are born to very ordinary parents without a drop of magic in their blood.”

 

            “Which were you?”

 

            “My father was a powerful warlock. The woman I was born to, in a town to the south, had no magic, but my mother - my father’s wife - is a witch as well. I have a brother; he’s a warlock from your worst nightmares. On a darker path than most of our kind. I haven’t seen him since I was eleven.”

 

            “You said you’d been out here since you were sixteen?”

 

            Shrugging, Lena let out a withering sigh as she stirred her spoon through the broth. “It’s tradition. We’re initiated at sixteen and are turned out into the world. I’ve only seen my mother a handful of times since then, at formal gatherings that were too important to let fear dissuade us from meeting. My father is long since dead.”

 

            “I’m sorry.”

 

            “An unfortunate turn of circumstances for some; not so much for others,” Lena dismissively replied.

 

            “Do you miss them?”

 

            With a sharp laugh, she threw her head back, shoulders shaking. “Not in the slightest. I enjoy my own company more than most. I’m perfectly content with my life.”

 

            They finished eating in silence, staring into the fire of the wide hearth. Afterwards, they drank more tea and ate wilting crabapples, the fruit sweet and filling them up. Kara felt perfectly content before the fire, warm and full, tea in hand as the sky darkened outside, ushered in by the canopy of trees blocking out the sky. Although she didn’t mean to, she couldn’t stave off sleep when it came for her, nodding off without even realising it had crept up on her.

 

            It was Lena’s gentle touch shaking her awake that brought her around. Eyelashes fluttering, Kara suddenly jerked upwards from her slumped position, aware of the wrongness of the moment. It was dark and her body was weary and heavy from sleep and she was in a cottage that was familiar but wasn't home. And if she didn’t make it home that night, her sister would come looking.

 

            Jumping to her feet, Kara looked at Lena with owlish round eyes, running a hand through her frazzled hair. “Oh! It’s late. I’m late. I didn’t mean to fall asleep.”

 

            “It’s fine. You still have a few hours to make it home before you arouse suspicion.”

 

            Nodding, Kara ran a hand over her face and glanced around, looking for her coat. She needed to get moving quickly.

 

            “Looking for this?” Lena asked with a tentative smile, nervous energy humming in the air as she held out Kara’s coat.

 

            The blue of the fabric was darker, less faded and patchy in the orange firelight, and when Kara reached out for it, she saw that the cuffs were no longer frayed and stained with old splotches on ink. A missing brass button had magically reappeared and the weave of the fabric seemed less threadbare as if the weave had pulled itself tighter, thicker. 

 

            “My coat,” Kara softly exclaimed. “You mended it.”

 

            “Just a few cantrips to patch it up a bit. I can’t fix it entirely, but it’ll last a bit longer.”

 

            Hugging it to herself, Kara felt her cheeks warm with a pink flush as she grew flustered, warmth pooling in her chest. “Thank you.”

 

            “Kindness repaid in kind,” Lena reminded her, a pleased look on her face as she stood a little taller.

 

            Unable to stop herself, Kara threw herself at her and wrapped her in a tight hug, feeling Lena stiffen in her arms. She felt so small, her chin on Kara’s shoulder, shoulders thin. Yet, once she’d overcome the shock of being embraced for the first time in what must’ve been the entire decade she’d been secluded in the woods, Lena slowly wound her arms around Kara’s waist, and they fit together perfectly.

 

            She didn’t want to let go, but the lengthening shadows bode a warning, and Kara reluctantly pulled back, gripping Lena’s arms as she smiled shyly down at her. 

 

            “Thank you, truly. It means a lot to me.”

 

            “You should get going. Would you like me to walk you to the walls?”

 

            As much as she wanted to take Lena up on the offer, to spend as much time with her as possible, Kara knew that she would be tempting fate to lead her all the way to the walls. For all she knew, Alex would jump the gun on searching for her and catch them together on the outskirts of town, and Kara wasn’t sure what excuse she’d be able to come up with that would make sense.

 

            “I’ll be fine, thank you. There’s still some sunlight left, but I really should be going.”

 

            “Of course.”

 

            “Thank you for supper,” Kara said, struggling into her coat, fingers fumbling with the brass buttons, shiny and new, “and for tea. And the coat and the foraging. It’s been a marvellous day and I-” she hurried to the door and snatched up her sword, quickly buckling it around her waist, “will be back as soon as I can.”

 

            Chuckling, Lena watched her scramble around, arms folded over her chest and a fondness softening her features. “I look forward to it.”

 

            “Goodbye,” Kara breathlessly said, pausing a moment to stare at her, drinking in the sight, before she nodded her head and stepped outside. “Have a good night, Lena.”

 

            “And you, Kara.”

 

            She was gone without another word, disappearing through the trees like a wraith. The stillness was eerie in the waning light, nothing moving but the rustling trees, sounding like they were talking. Taking long-legged strides through the underbrush, Kara struggled not to trip over her own feet as she rushed towards the open mouth of the valley, spilling out of the woods with her sword batting against her legs.

 

            The sky was blue and blurred the edges of the world as dusk was ushered in, and Kara jogged across the flat fields and gentle hills, bypassing cows and sheep and small farmsteads. Splashing through puddles and the occasional rivulet of water from the foothills of the distant mountains, she hurried home as quick as she could, sweat beading her skin and her heart buoyed by thoughts of Lena and the perfect day they’d had together. She would’ve been happy to stay there all night if she could, but instead, she hurried home.

 

            Darkness had blanketed the countryside at the next village over from the town, orange lanterns battling to keep it at bay, and Kara’s lungs burned with the relentless pace she kept, trying to make it home before her absence grew too suspicious. 

 

            Passing by familiar guards, she trilled a greeting, feet slapping on the cobblestones as she flew through the gates as if the devil was at her heels. She slowed a few streets from home to catch her breath, her heart pounding in her chest as she struggled to breathe evenly, ragged lungfuls of air burning in her chest.

 

            Eventually, she made it home, drooping with exhaustion and already thinking of bed. Fishing her key out of her pocket, Kara unlocked the front door and stepped into the quiet house, slowly locking it behind her once more.

 

            “You’re late,” Alex noted, shutting her book and setting it down beside her as Kara stepped into her sister’s line of sight.

 

            “Long walk,” Kara said with a bright smile, “I had to take shelter from the rain for a bit. Some hamlet to the south.”

 

            Climbing to her feet, Alex moved towards her, brushing shoulders as she stepped into the narrow hallway. “You must be freezing. Sit by the fire and I’ll get you some supper.”

 

            “Thanks,” Kara gratefully replied, shedding her coat and hanging it on a hook inside the door.

 

            Alex paused momentarily, her expression clouding as she reached out to feel the arm of the coat, a pensive look on her face. 

 

            “What?” Kara nervously asked, struggling to keep her voice even.

 

            Pulling her hand back, Alex shrugged and gave her a tired smile, “nothing, I just- you washed your coat.”

 

            “Oh, uh, yes. I did. It looks better, doesn’t it?”

 

            “Yes, it does.”

 

            “Right, well, I’m tired so I think I’ll eat and go straight up to bed.”

 

            Giving her a searching look, Alex shrugged and smiled as Kara held her breath, waiting to see if she’d roused any suspicion. It didn’t seem like it.

 

            “I’ll fetch you some chicken and you can tell me about your walk.”

Chapter Text

            Although Alex never voiced any suspicions, Kara was careful in the following weeks after Lena had mended her shabby coat. She didn’t risk visiting her, as much as she longed to, didn’t risk leaving her enchanted compass lying about, in case Alex noticed there was something off about it, and tried not to let herself be consumed by thoughts of the witch so Alex had no cause to wonder what had her mind so preoccupied. Kara failed terribly at the last one.

 

            It was over a month before she felt that it was safe enough to slip out of the bustling town unnoticed by her sister, who was off fulfilling her duties as the kingdom’s witch interrogator, keeping odd hours and uncomfortable company that made Kara squirm when she found herself wedged in between them in a tavern over drinks. She would feel her shoulders growing sore with tension as she hunched more and more with each scathing remark that she forced herself not to react to, biding her time until she could see Lena again.

 

            It was early spring, the sky a clear blue and the sun illuminating the cramped, narrow streets of the town, and instead of enjoying the warming weather, Kara found herself tucked away in the back of the old store, tending to the printing press with ink-stained fingers and a distracted air about her. Not that she didn’t enjoy her job, or the little store nestled in between a bakery and cobblers, with tall windows letting in shafts of sunlight that highlighted spiralling dust motes, the creaking floorboards and the smell of leather and ammonia. 

 

            There was comfort in the familiar routine of lining up the little metal letters and pressing them down, freshly inked, onto thick paper, binding the pages together and making soft leather covers in crimson and emerald and sapphire for their customers to buy. They sold any and every kind of book and took special requests from their wealthier clients on all manner of topics. All save anything to do with witchcraft.

 

            It was a taboo topic, and more than one person had been dragged off in the middle of the night after making jokes about practising magic. The shop had been randomly searched more than once by rough-handed soldiers of the King, rifling through books as they looked for anything to do with magic, and Kara was deep in thought that day, wondering what they’d do to her if they knew she’d been in contact with a bonafide witch. Had been enchanted by the witch, witnessed firsthand the magic she could do.

 

            “Go on, off with you,” J’onn called out from the wide oak desk he was sat behind, shoulders hunched and a small pair of glasses perched on his nose as he slowly moved through the stack of papers before him, editing the next book to be printed.

 

            “Hm?” Kara distractedly murmured, looking up from where she was assembling the letters in the press for another page.

 

            The lenses of his glasses reflected the deep orange light of the candle set on his desk as he worked in the gloomy back of the shop, and his dark eyes shone as he peered at her over the top of them, giving her a stern look that was ruined by the faint smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. Dipping his quill into a pot of deep blue ink, he nodded his head towards the door.

 

            “You’ve been distracted all day. Take the rest of the day to enjoy the sun.”

 

            “What? No, I’m fine, J’onn,” Kara said with a thin smile, “it’s just … daydreams. It’s silly.”

 

            “You haven’t had a day off for the past month . Go on. Some fresh air will do you good.”

 

            Chewing on her bottom lip, Kara paused for a moment, staring down at her blue fingertips as she deliberated, before relenting. With a rush of eagerness, she wiped her hands on an ink-stained cloth, leaving them spotted with blotchy blue, and rolled down her sleeves, giving J’onn a bright smile.

 

            “You know what? You’re right. I think I might visit the markets.”

 

            “Good.”

 

            Nodding, Kara moved with surprising urgency now, her thoughts turning to Lena as she quickly calculated how fast she could hike cross-country and make it to the small forest. She’d been planning on taking a few things with her this time, things that Lena wouldn’t be easily able to get without going into town, and her comment about visiting the market was true.

 

            Pulling on her coat and picking up her knapsack with her lunch and a battered book of stories, Kara slung it over one shoulder as she looked over her shoulder at J’onn and raised a hand in goodbye.

 

            “See you tomorrow.”

 

            She slipped out into bright light and blinked as her eyes adjusted, a gentle breeze cool against her skin and fresh after the close, dusty back of the shop. Glancing through the warped windows she looked into the dim interior, dark save for a faint orange glow, and smiled to herself as she walked past it.

 

            Hitching her knapsack more securely onto her shoulder, Kara walked through the winding streets towards the large courtyard with the spring market crowded around the edges, colourful awnings shading stalls and so many people bustling about that she had to worm her way through the crowd. Children ran underfoot, and shouts and laughter filled the air, infectious excitement making Kara smile widely.

 

            With a small leather purse in the depths of her pocket, full of coppers and silvers, Kara made her way to a handful of stalls, buying a few essentials for Lena and shoving them into her bag. Her cheesecloth with bread and meat was bundled up under her arm for her lunch, and she soon found herself walking through the gates of the town laden down with her purchases.

 

            There was finely ground flour, salted cuts of fine meats that were better than any stringy rabbit or squirrel that Lena would be able to find. Pouches of herbs and coarse salt and peppercorns, lentils and grains and dried beans. She’d even had enough to buy Lena a small bar of sweet cocoa imported from the south. 

 

            With a spring in her step, Kara set a brisk pace across green fields strewn with sheep and cows as farmers worked to till the damp earth, already getting to work on the next yield of crops. The sun was warm on her face and Kara whistled tunelessly as she walked quickly, making up for lost time. Without the scabbard of her sword banging against her legs, the heavy weight slowing her down, she made good time, although the heavy sack soon made her shoulders ache.

 

            Still, the smell of blooming flowers, of freshly mowed grass and damp earth was exhilarating and Kara found herself smiling as she made her way through the hunk of buttered bread and roast chicken, enjoying the sound of droning bees and tweeting birds, puffy white clouds tracing their way across the periwinkle sky as leaves rustled and the air smelled like spring. 

 

            Noon passed by as she ate a red apple, following the worn dirt tracks up the side of grassy knolls, skirting around towns and pastures to avoid piquing strangers' curiosity about where she was off to, heading to the middle of nowhere. With her own thoughts to keep her company, Kara traversed the hills and dips all the way to the valley where the forest was nestled.

 

            Looking down at it from above, she grinned brightly, the patch of green seeming more vibrant in the spring sunshine, and she began the slow, scuffling descent down into the valley. Trampling clover and buttercups and sending dandelion seeds twirling through the air on the breeze. Heart buoyed with eager excitement and a dull ache hidden in the depths from missing Lena for the past few weeks, Kara hurried along, trying not to slip on crumbling stone and hard-packed earth as she let momentum carry her downwards.

 

            Compass in hand, Kara followed the hovering needlepoint straight through the trees, breathing in the strong odour of fresh pine needles and loamy earth, the undergrowth rich with new life and sweet rotting plants from the winter, feeding the ground to bring forth a variety of colourful plants. As she walked, Kara identified numerous ones that Lena had shown her last time, as well as familiar ones that had started sprouting with the spring. 

 

            Strawberries starting to ripen, buttercups thrusting up the colour of sunshine, snowdrops delicately bowed and violets burst forth in purplish-blue. There were fleshy mushrooms that Kara eyes with shrewd curiosity, trying to guess whether they were the poisonous ones Lena collected for tea or the ones safe enough to eat, tiny radishes starting to shoot up, green leaves crowning the root vegetables. Dandelions sunny yellow and white and green patches of wild garlic, and acorns, chestnuts and walnuts all starting to grow, tiny green buds on the surrounding trees, left to their own devices with the lack of birds and squirrels to steal them away.

 

            Even in spring, Kara could feel the lack of movement. The forest almost seemed deserted, dead save for the abundance of flourishing plants and trees, sighing as they rustled their leaves, almost like they were whispering about her passing. Despite the lack of birdsong, or perhaps because of it, it still felt like Kara had stepped into another realm, slipped through shadows and some strange boundary to enter a different world, hushed and tasting of magic. She could feel the odd tingling feeling in her fingertips and the way the air tasted, her skin humming as it reacted to it.

 

            As she walked onwards, trying her best to step lightly, wary about disturbing the quiet serenity of the trees as sunlight slanted through the shaded canopy overhead, giving the air a greenish quality as dark and light dappled the floor where fingers of sunlight worked their way through. It led her straight ahead from where she’d entered the wooded area to the south-east of it, and Kara stumbled along on a westwards path, cutting right through to the other side as she bypassed the cottage altogether. 

 

            The enchanted compass led her all the way through to the other side of the woods, and Kara braced herself against an old birch tree, the bark rough beneath her hand, and paused for a moment to catch her breath. Shading her eyes with her other hand, Kara squinted as she scanned the surrounding area for Lena’s familiar form.

 

            There was nothing but the patchwork spread of fields and distant shapes of buildings of the nearest village, barely a handful of homes baking in the sun, and Kara’s brow furrowed as she glanced around, looking for the telltale cloaked witch. Checking the compass in her hand, Kara watched as the needle continued to swerve, angling north-east, back into the shade of the trees as Lena moved.

 

            Hitching the heavy bag up further, grimacing slightly as it gouged into her already sore muscles, Kara stepped back into the dim coolness of the trees, picking her way around twisted trees and bristling conifers. She stumbled upon Lena almost without meaning too, still near the borders of the treeline, sunlight slanting through from ahead of her as she made a left, having gone too far in, and paused at the scene before her.

 

            Kneeling in the green light of the forest, in a small clearing between trees, Lena was gripping the hands of a small girl with wheat-coloured hair. Her back was mostly to Kara, and she wasn’t sure if she’d noticed her arrival, and Kara was silent as she stood rooted to the spot, the blood draining from her face as she watched Lena reach up and press her thumb to the young girl’s forehead. She couldn’t have been older than seven, and Kara’s mouth went dry as she watched Lena’s breath mist before her in a purplish cloud the shade of a bruise.

 

            It hung in the air for a moment as Lena still held the girl’s hand in her own, her face mostly obscured by her dark hair as Kara warily watched on, before it dissipated.

 

            “Hey! Get away from her,” Kara sharply called out, breaking the tenuous silence.

 

            Startling like a frightened rabbit, Lena was on her feet in a flash, rising fluidly and staring at Kara with round eyes, dark in the gloominess of the woods and stark against her pale skin. Her whole body had gone rigid, her face hard and taut, and Kara watched it bleed out of her, the edges softening as a thin smile pulled at her mouth. 

 

            “Kara.”

 

            Turning, Lena glanced down at the child and gave her a bright smile, so big that it seemed almost maddening as she stroked her blonde hair. Leaning down, Lena whispered into her ear and Kara stared into the glassy, distant look in the girl's eyes, as if she was blind and not really seeing at all. 

 

            Her insides twisted as the hair on the back of her neck stood on end, cold fear sliding down her spine at the sense of wrongness in the moment. Dubiously, Kara tilted her head ever so slightly, staring at the girl as she watched her blink slowly, sluggishly, before turning and walking away. She didn’t speak, didn’t so much as acknowledge that Kara or Lena was there or that she’d even seen them at all, and slipped out of the trees and into the bright sunshine. 

 

            Stomach lurching, Kara recoiled slightly, lips parting in affront as Kara turned her eyes to Lena, sharp with accusation as her blonde eyebrows furrowed heavily above them. Lena was looking at her with affable delight, her lips curved into a warm smile, eyes bright with surprise as her cheeks dimpled endearingly. She looked harmless, and yet Kara wasn’t sure what to think about what she’d just witnessed.

 

            Lena had made the extent of her powers clear, the way she could tear Kara apart with her little finger if she so wished to, but despite that, she’d never given Kara a reason to fear her. Not since their first meeting had gone awry and she’d corrected the prejudice that had made Kara so quick to draw her sword on her to save Alex’s life. Yet now, she was afraid.

 

            “What did you do to her?” Kara asked, her voice too loud in the close space, trembling slightly, betraying her fear as she stared at Lena with wide eyes.

 

            With a bewildered laugh, Lena’s forehead furrowed together as she smiled at Kara, head cocked to the side and eyes clouded with confusion. Quickly picking her way across the few feet separating them, stepping further into the shade as she moved towards Kara, who lurked in the shade of an oak tree, Lena gave her a relaxed smile, dismissive and unperturbed.

 

            “What do you mean? I didn’t do anyth-”

 

            “I saw you. Why was she here? ” 

 

            Flinching back slightly, Lena’s face darkened with a petulant look as she pursed her lips, giving Kara a shrewd look as her eyes searched her face. She must not have liked what she saw in Kara’s eyes, the flickering fear, the tightness around the corners of her eyes and mouth, the way her throat bobbed as she swallowed thickly.

 

            “She was drawn here by the magic. Children are more sensitive to it; I get about a dozen a year from the nearest village.”

 

            Kara eyed her with doubt, her skin prickling with unease as she chewed on the inside of her lip, studying Lena for a moment as she turned the words over in her mind. It made sense, of course. But there had been something unnerving in the blank look in the girl’s eyes, distant and vacant, and it left Kara feeling suspicious. She didn’t really know Lena all that well, for what it was worth.

 

            “What were you doing to her?” Kara asked, softening her voice as she looked at her expectantly.

 

            Waving a hand, Lena smiled unevenly. “I was just … reworking her memory.”

 

            “What?”

 

            “I can’t have her telling people that there’s someone living in the woods now, can I?” Lena said with a snort of laughter. “One whisper of someone out here and word would make it back to the town and the inquisition would be down on me with torches and pitchforks. I have to protect myself. That’s all.”

 

            “That’s all?” Kara said, a crease forming between her eyebrows as her mouth turned down at the corners with approval.

 

            Eyebrows rising in surprise, Lena gave her a wry smile that didn’t reach her eyes. There was no amusement to it, only a shadow of bitterness as one side of her mouth hitched up higher than the other.

 

            “You sound like you don’t believe me,” Lena murmured, her voice low and measured, each word clipped as she stared at Kara, her gaze level and piercing. 

 

            Shoulders slumping, Kara shook her head as she shrugged, gesturing wordlessly with her hands as she gave Lena a pained look. “I’m not sure what to think. I just- it seems … invasive. Poking around in people’s heads. I mean … how do you know you’re not hurting them? Damaging their minds?”

 

            “I’m just taking memories, reworking the holes into a day spent … gathering flowers and climbing trees. It’s nothing,” Lena quietly urged her, a faint smile on her lips as she looked at Kara with childlike innocence.

 

            Guilt nagged at her, yet Kara couldn’t shake the feeling of wrongness that had stopped her cold in her tracks when she’d seen the little girl. She wanted to believe Lena, but everything in her told her that witches were dangerous, and even if Lena had only been poking around in the girl’s head to steal a few memories and move things around, it still didn’t sit right with her.

 

            “But it’s wrong,” Kara insisted, her voice soft and hesitant.

 

            She didn’t want to anger Lena, she didn’t want to provoke her either, but Kara didn’t like the thought of her poking around inside people’s heads without them knowing. It might’ve been self-preservation, but the blank way the girl had turned, as if she couldn’t even see, had unsettled Kara in a way that reminded her again of Lena’s raw power.

 

            “What would you have me do?” Lena sharply asked, her expression darkening as she went rigid. “Let them go with their memories intact? Let them tell their parents, their friends, the guards? Let them take me to your sister? I do what I have to to survive , that’s all . I thought you trusted me.”

 

            “I do-” Kara started to protest.

 

            “No, you don’t,” Lena harshly cut her off, the air seeming to darken around her, shadows gathering as the air chilled.

 

            Kara suppressed a shiver as she shrank back half a step, her mouth dry as a lump lodged itself in her throat. She could feel the tingling magic on her skin, a cold sweat dampening her lower back as she drew in a shallow breath, her heart thudding loudly in her chest.

 

            “I can see it. I know you, I can see the doubt. The judgement. I thought you’d moved past that, that you realised what they taught you wasn’t the truth. I should’ve known that the stories they’d filled your head with wouldn’t have been so easy to quell.”

 

            “I’m not judging you,” Kara exclaimed, “I just don’t understand why . Surely there’s a less harmful way to make them forget.”

 

            “Maybe the issue isn’t about the kids remembering but why your people want me tied to a stake and burned alive,” Lena spat, a look of contempt on her face as she looked at Kara.

 

            Despite her harsh tone and bristling anger, there was a wounded look of betrayal in her eyes, a deep-rooted sadness that gave her a mournful air as the light diminished, sucked inwards as she blotted the green tint out with black mist as it oozed from her body.

 

            “I thought you trusted me, but you still doubt my magic. You think that I would use it to harm someone.”

 

            “No,” Kara exploded, reaching forward with her hand, the strap of her bag slipping off her shoulder as the canvas sack thumped heavily on the leafy carpet of the woods. “I know you mean well, it’s- this is what people see! They see your kind performing spells and- and it doesn’t look good. How am I supposed to believe that what you’re doing isn’t going to hurt her? When I came looking for you the second time, the enchantment placed on me would’ve had me walk the countryside until I dropped dead from exhaustion. I would’ve walked until my feet were worn down to the bone. You might not have intended for that to happen, but even harm caused unwittingly still falls upon you. I’m just- I’m trying to help you.”

 

            “Help?” Lena scoffed, her voice low and frosty as violet light flickered over her arms and chest as her temper flared up.

 

            It was like flickering bolts of lightning dancing across her, giving her skin a ghastly tint in the waning light as Kara slunk backwards, her feet quiet on the damp, rotting foliage as she inched towards the sunlight to her back. Her hand instinctively went to the hilt of the sword that wasn’t there, a reflex of wary preparation for an attack as her fight or flight response was triggered, and she froze as her fingers felt nothing but empty air.

 

            Going still as she kept her eyes trained on Lena, Kara swallowed the guilt that clawed at her as Lena’s eyes flickered down at the sight of movement. With a quiet huff of laughter, Lena’s mouth stretched into a thin smile as her eyes shone brightly in the dark. There was a brief moment of pause as they came to a stop and realisation dawned on both of them at what Kara had been about to do.

 

            “Really? You would try and draw your sword on me?” Lena softly asked, her words bitter and mocking and full of pain as her face spasmed slightly. “After I saved your sister? After I spared your life the first time you dared to attack me?”

 

            “Lena, I-”

 

            “Go,” Lena snarled, the air around her crackling with dangerous energy. 

 

            With the careless wave of her hand, a rush of air slammed into Kara, sending her sprawling backwards onto the leaf-strewn floor. Blinking back black spots, Kara scrambled backwards on all fours, her breaths coming short and shallow as panic set in, her chest constricting painfully as a pressure built up behind her eyes. 

 

            Scuttling all the way to the treeline as she watched tendrils of darkness snake their way across the forest floor, creeping and slow and terrifying as it obliterated and light seeping through the canopy overhead, Kara’s hand finally fell into a patch of warmth, bathed in sunlight and dry to the touch. 

 

            She lurched to her feet and staggered out of the woods with a wild air of desperation about her, before she whirled, expression mournful and pleading. Sore and sweaty and trembling all over, Kara’s bottom lip wavered as she looked at the ghostly face wreathed in shadows peering out at her from the boundary line of the trees.

 

            “Don’t come back again,” Lena warned her, her voice shaking and low, hands clenched into fists as that strange violet light flickered around her. “I don’t want to hurt you, but I can’t risk my safety either.”

 

            “Lena,” Kara breathlessly said, reaching out for her one final time, a look of devastation on her face as she stumbled over her own feet, expression fraught with urgency. 

 

            Face crumpling and eyes shining with tears, Lena drew in a hitching breath as her shoulders slumped. “I thought you were different.”

 

            Without another word, she exhaled in one long stream, grey and cold as it drifted towards Kara, who quickly staggered away from it. She was too slow though - not that she would’ve been able to outrun the spell if she’d tried - and Kara came to a standstill as her face was shrouded in the grey cloud, coughing and spluttering as it worked its way through her lips and up her nose, making her sinuses tingle and her eyes dry and aching as she breathed it in.

 

            When it finally dissipated, evaporating into nothing, like it had never even been there, she was left standing alone, feeling like her head had been stuffed with cotton wool. Blinking her sore eyes and drawing in a rasping breath in between stuttering coughs, she fumbled forwards, seized by the anguished urge to see Lena.

 

            There was no trace of her, no sign that she’d even been standing there, dark and threatening in a shroud of shadow. Stumbling over the invisible boundary line, Kara numbly stepped beneath the green-tinted sunlight, listening to the trees stir in the silent wood, her breath loud and ragged in the air as she looked around.

 

            “Lena?” she called out, voice fraught with worry and guilt.

 

            Her face crumpled with despair as she looked around, nothing stirring as if the whole forest was holding its breath. Clearing her throat as her eyes darted around, hoping to spot Lena’s dark silhouette hidden behind a scarred trunk, Kara opened her mouth as she took another hesitant step forward before her head throbbed painfully and she cut off with a hiss.

 

            Muddled and confused, Kara shrank backwards, away from the hostile forest and back out into the bright spring day, a hand pressed to her temple as tears pricked her eyes. Her head pounded with a banging headache, pulsing behind her eyes as she looked into the dim thicket of trees, her heart aching in her chest.

 

            She tried venturing in again, only to trigger another spike of pain that made her vision blur for a moment. Kara grit her teeth and ducked her head down, shoulders squared as she stubbornly pushed onwards, until her forehead was damp with sweat, her chest was heaving and she was doubled over with sickening nausea no more than half a dozen footsteps beneath the shaded canopy.

 

            Feeling faint and leaden with exhaustion, the edges of her mind blurring as confusion made her thoughts sluggish, Kara staggered back out of the woods and slumped to her knees on the dry grass, gripping handfuls in her slick hands as she sucked in cool lungfuls of air as the sun warmed her shoulders.

 

            Kneeling for a while, until the back of her neck was hot and her tongue was thick in her parched mouth, Kara silently cursed her penchant for jumping to conclusions, for meddling in things that didn’t involve her, and finally pushed herself to her feet when it became clear that Lena wasn’t going to come and call her back. 

 

            With her lost bag and her unsteady steps, she numbly walked away from the woods, tripping over stones and stepping into hidden animal dens, nearly twisting her ankles a handful of times and staining her blue hands green from the grass, she slowly dragged herself away from the woods.

 

            She was skirting around the small collection of buildings, listening to the not-so-distant sounds of voices, when a young, childish voice called out to her, high and curious. 

 

            “Excuse me, lady, are you okay?”

 

            Blinking owlishly, Kara looked around in a daze, shading her eyes from the sun as she tried to pinpoint the voice. With a start, she found herself looking at a young girl with golden hair, peering out from behind a nearby apple tree. Stomach lurching, Kara realised it was the same girl that she’d seen with Lena, and felt the breath catch in her throat.

 

            “Hello,” she mumbled, a troubled look clouding her face.

 

            “You look lost,” the girl said, head cocked to the side as she gave Kara a gap-toothed sunny smile, eyes crinkling as her freckled nose wrinkled.

 

            Looking down at herself, Kara took in her grass-stained brown trousers, worn blue coat and messily untucked shirt. Her scruffy boots were covered in mud and grass and her hair was plastered to her forehead with sweat, her whole body covered in sweat as her equilibrium was disturbed by whatever spells Lena had sent barrelling into her. Disoriented and faint, Kara blinked at the girl and opened and closed her mouth, scrambling for words.

 

            “Are you okay?” Kara managed to ask.

 

            The girl’s forehead furrowed with bewildered amusement as she grinned up at her, cheeks dimpling and eyes shining. “Me? I’m trying to pick apples!”

 

            “Apples?” Kara faintly murmured, watching the girl spin around in delighted circles, the skirts of her dress flaring out around her. She seemed exuberant and lighthearted. Unaffected. “It’s a bit early for apples.”

 

            “Yeah,” the girl heavily sighed, shoulders drooping. 

 

            She stopped spinning as she spoke, her mouth turning down at the corners as she swayed unsteadily on her feet, before giving Kara a friendly smile.

 

            “You look like you need a drink. Come on, I’ll take you to the stream!”

 

            The girl took her clammy hand in her own and towed her along, through the empty fields being tilled for harvest, hunched farmers casting her curious looks as she stumbled along in a daze. Abruptly, they came upon a shallow stream, wide as Kara was tall and trickling along as it made its way towards the river. The water shimmered in the sunlight, blue as it reflected the sky and enticing as Kara’s shirt chafed against the back of her neck and under her arms.

 

            Dropping to her knees, Kara scooped up cold water in her cupped hands, hastily pouring it past her chapped lips and savouring the feeling of it spreading through her chest as she swallowed. She drank her fill of it, tasting the green tang and feeling the gritty silt left behind on her tongue, and without a second thought, pitched forward, head-first into the shallow stream.

 

            Arms and legs splayed out, she lay with her face in the water, eyes closed to the bed a mere foot from her face, and let the frigid cold seep into her as it soaked through her clothes and bogged her down. As her lungs screamed for air, she rolled over onto her back, a fresh wave of cold spreading across her back as her fingertips stirred up the bottom, clouding the water with silt and sand.

 

            Floating in the stream for a few minutes, until she was shivering in the numbing water trickling down from the mountains, still clinging to winter up at their snow-capped peaks, Kara sat upright and found the young girl staring at her with wide, round eyes. Lips trembling, Kara raked a sopping hand through her wet hair and cleared her throat, climbing to her feet in the middle of the ambling flow of the stream.

 

            Water cascaded from her as she stood there, feeling her boots sink into the soft bottom as they flooded with water, and she was silent for a moment, staring at the girl who was fine and feeling her mind clear from the effects of the water.

 

            “Thank you,” Kara quietly said, not quite meeting her eyes as she stared past her. “Stay away from the woods, kid.”

 

            Without another word, she bitterly turned around and climbed up the opposite bank of the stream, gouging footprints into the soft mud as she scrambled for purchase, before climbing to her feet. Feeling a little more focused, a little more centred, Kara hunched her shoulders and made for home.

 

            It was a slow journey, full of shivering and stumbling, her clothes drying to a clinging dampness that enveloped her in the odour of wet wool, the wet leather of her boots giving her unbearable blisters and her teeth chattering loudly in her head. Hugging her arms to herself as walked at a snail’s pace, creeping back towards the town with her head hung in defeat and an aching grief in her chest, dusk started to creep in, lengthening the shadows and bringing a sharp wind with it as she neared the guarded gates of the town.

 

            Nodding to the soldiers, she slipped past and plodded through the maze of streets, full of people heading home for the day or making their way to various taverns and gambling halls. She slipped in seamlessly with the flow of foot traffic and the occasional horse and wagon, turning down narrow side streets as she cut her way through the familiar blocks of buildings, solid and safe and comforting.

 

            She was heavy-hearted and exhausted when she finally stopped outside the door to her home, shoving the key into the lock and letting herself in. Warmth slammed into her with the woody odour of smoke from a fire, and Kara’s shoulders drooped with resignation as her stomach growled with hunger.

 

            “Is that you, Kara?” Alex called out.

 

            “Yeah,” she wearily replied, her voice little more than a sigh.

 

            “Stew’s still hot.”

 

            Kara swallowed the lump in her throat as she stepped into sight of her sister, sitting at the scarred wooden table before the fire as she dunked a heel of bread into the stew. Alex raised an eyebrow at her dishevelled appearance, toying with her spoon and the thick broth as she gave her an appraising look.

 

            “What happened to you?”

 

            Tears flooded Kara’s eyes and she ducked her head down as she rapidly blinked them away, gruffly clearing her throat as she shrugged. “It’s … nothing. I- uh, J’onn let me go early today. I went to the markets and someone … stole my bag. Pushed me into the fountain. That’s all.”

 

            “Oh,” Alex murmured, her brow furrowing as she set her spoon down.

 

            The chair legs scraped across the floor as she climbed to her feet, an anxious look on her face as she rounded the table and moved towards Kara with concern. Reaching out, she gripped the damp shoulders of her coat and gently squeezed, even as her nose wrinkled slightly at the smell of sheep clinging to her sister.

 

            “We should get you out of these wet clothes. Get you by the fire before you catch a chill.”

 

            Kara hummed in half-hearted agreement and fumbled with the buttons of her coat, pulling it off and tossing it over the back of a chair with a sodden, limp sound. She kicked off her wet boots and wriggled her toes against the clinging fabric of her darned socks. Making for the stairs, she made her way up to her room and stripped off the rest of her clothes, her skin cool and clammy to the touch, rippling with goosebumps against the air.

 

            Dressed in dry clothes and thick socks, she made her way back downstairs and took a seat closest to the fire, her shoulders to the orange flames as the warmth burrowed into her skin, almost too hot. Alex already had a bowl of stew and some bread and tea waiting for Kara, and she devoured it without relish, even though hunger gnawed at her stomach. She didn’t say much, preoccupied with her thoughts, thoughts of Lena, and Alex let her dwell in silence, unaware of her sister’s inner turmoil as she struggled with her feelings for the witch.

 


 

            Alone in her cottage, Lena settled in for a long night all alone.

 

            After banishing Kara from her home, she’d slipped away through the trees, their thick trunks blocking her from sight as she stumbled over the rotting foliage littering the ground, struggling to contain her powers as they threatened to bubble over. Violet lightning flickers across her, bolts twisting in the green light and casting the forest in an eerie light, until she couldn’t hold it in any longer.

 

            Tears pricked her eyes and her hands were white-knuckled as she trembled, and all at once, it came spilling out of her. She was far enough away from Kara that she wouldn’t hear, wouldn’t see, as Lena unleashed the anger-fuelled power, feeling it bleed from her in a storm of rage. Loud cracks split the hushed silence and even the trees stood still for a moment, lightning rending wide gashes into trunks, burning away leaves and needles and bark as she stood with her shoulders hunched and eyes closed.

 

            A wordless sob worked its way past her lips as she squeezed her eyes shut, breathing in the smell of charred wood. She was too scared to look. Looking and seeing what her anger had wrought, what destruction her power had caused, would only drive home the truth of Kara’s words, that she was dangerous and powerful, and that power had the potential to harm innocent bystanders.

 

            Eyes closed, she lurched forward, feeling her way, the gentle tug of home that always led her back to her doorstep, until the fresh smell of pine and greenery and sweet flowers replaced the smell of smoke and burning wood. Eyes fluttering open, Lena gasped as she pressed a hand to her heart, stumbling over her feet as she was propelled home, vision blurred as tears welled up, yet refused to fall.

 

            She came upon her cottage with overwhelming relief and the comforting harbour of home, the door swinging open beneath her touch as she pressed her fingertips to the worn wood. The dark loneliness of her home made her feel cold and empty and Lena stood in the middle of the room for a moment, so much sadness filling her heart as she thought about Kara, about how quickly she’d turned, how swiftly her opinion of Lena had plummeted.

 

            With a cry of gut-wrenching pain and heartache, Lena dashed her hands through the air before her. Chaos exploded around her as she caused her belongings to scatter across the room, vellum books flinging from shelves, pages tearing free and littering the floor, clay pots and glass vials shattering on the floor, herbs hanging overhead shredding into leaves and petals, chairs slamming into the stone walls, smashing into pieces like matchsticks. 

 

            Her emotions boiled over until she came to a sudden stop, chest heaving as she drew in shallow, uneven breaths, downy feathers drifting lazily down to the floor as she stared around at the ruin around her. Swallowing thickly, Lena blinked back her tears and sighed heavily, before she made a beckoning motion, murmured an inaudible phrase in a forgotten language and clapped her hands together.

 

            Sinking down to the floor where she stood, in a clean spot on the floor, she slumped as she watched the room right itself, almost as if time was being turned back. Pillows stuffed themselves back up, chair legs reattached themselves and scattered pages bound themselves back to the spines of limp books. Crockery and glass melded seamlessly back together and the water violently torn from the hand pump shrank back down the pipe.

 

            It took a few minutes, but soon enough, Lena was sitting in a spotless room, perhaps even cleaner than it had been before she’d walked in and ripped it all apart with her erratic powers. Even when the last few petals attached themselves to the stems hanging from the rafters and scattered grains had topped off jars on shelves, Lena stayed on the floor.

 

            She didn’t move for the longest time, her eyes blankly staring into the empty grate of the fireplace as she listened to her heartbeat settle back down, the steady thump a comforting sound of her fragile mortality. Loneliness ate at her heart and guilt clawed at her throat at her rash reaction to Kara’s confrontation. Mentally kicking herself, Lena ground her teeth together and brooded over her misery, her pride wounded from Kara’s easy judgement and her heart aching from the loss of her.

 

            Her rash decision to cloud Kara’s mind and turn her out of the woods had driven home the fact that she wasn’t welcome anymore, and that was if Kara even tried to come back after what she’d seen Lena doing to the child. It didn’t matter to her that Lena had been telling the truth, as she always did, only that Lena had been casting a spell on the child and it didn’t sit well with Kara, who had nothing to fear from her sister and the rest of the witch hunters. How different her opinion would be if she had to scrape by in the woods with her life hanging by the simple thread of secrecy, easily snapped if suspicion fell upon her.

 

            After dwelling for too long, making herself bitter and resentful as her insides twisted and her frustration simmered, Lena finally pushed herself to her feet. Stepping back out of the cottage, she slowly moved through the trees, retracing her earlier steps to where she’d unleashed her bottled up power.

 

            As she came upon the site, she sharply breathed in as a stab of remorse knifed through her heart at the first signs of her destruction. Warily stepping into the charred circle, she felt her eyes flood with tears again as her throat closed up with sorrow. Lena turned in a slow circle, eyeing the blackened trunks, cloven in two or split down the middle, curls of charred bark peeled away in strips. Leave had shrivelled and smouldered with fire and the air was heavy with smoke.

 

            Moving to the most damaged tree, Lena pressed her cheek against the rough bark and breathed in the acrid smell of fire, pressing her hand against it, almost as if she was trying to embrace the old willow, stripped of its trailing leaves. Her tears dripped off her chin, onto the floor, and the air fled from her lungs as she whispered quiet apologies.

 

            As she whispered, the trees spoke back to her, reassuring rustles of conversation that wrapped her in their embrace, and a strange green light pulsed from her hands as she held onto the trunk. The damage was done, and she couldn’t take back the anger she’d unleashed on her home, on the guardians that protected her from the world outside, but she poured her magic into the old willow and through the ground beneath her feet, until the clearing was bathed in green light, even as the sun slipped beyond the horizon and plunged the forest into shadows.

 

            Veins of greenery glowed eerily in the dimness of the early dusk, light struggling to pierce the canopy, and Lena kept up a constant stream of murmuring as the magic flowed through reaching root systems and the air was filled with the fresh greenness of new growth and saplings. Slowly, the layers of burnt bark and dead leaves peeled and fell from the injured trees, new scars fading to old as green growth started to bud and spread. 

 

            She couldn’t heal them all to brand new, but Lena poured as much of herself into the process as she could, leaving herself spent and haggard when she finally called her magic back, emerald light receding, back towards the willow she still held, until the faint light vanished and she was left alone in the quiet forest once more.

 

            “I’m sorry, old friend,” she murmured, stroking the new patch of green wood with tender fingertips, a lump caught in her throat.

 

            Mournful, despite the fact that she’d made what amends she could to the trees, Lena set her course to wander through the woods as night fell and darkness encroached on her home, her mind turning to Kara again. As her mind drifted, her feet were left to wander, and they followed a similar path, led by the thoughts of Kara, until Lena blinked as she found herself on the cusp of stepping out from the safe sanctuary the trees offered her.

 

            Peering out through the deep blue of dusk, Lena braced herself against a tree and felt disappointment wash over her as she found herself alone, listening to the hushed countryside as night drove everyone to home and bed. A part of her had been clinging to the hope that Kara would’ve stayed, would’ve stubbornly sat herself down on the grass and waited, that she wouldn’t have left with the lasting impression of Lena being a monster.

 

            Instead, she found herself alone. 

 

            She stayed a while, lost in her thoughts, before she made for home, the lingering effects of her magic leaving Lena drained and eager for bed, even though she hated the thought of being alone. Normally, it wouldn’t have bothered her so much, but the thought that she could’ve spent a nice afternoon in Kara’s company left her feeling bitter and miserable.

 

            As she left for home once more, no more than a few paces into the darkness, Lena nearly sprained her ankle as she tripped over the abandoned knapsack. Realisation dawned on her as the memory of it sliding from Kara’s shoulder and Lena reached down to pick it up, her eyebrows rising in surprise at the heavy weight of it.

 

            Heaving it onto her shoulder, Lena’s mouth thinned into a flat line as she looked back behind her, staring out at the suffocating blackness of the moonless night and resigning herself to the fact that sleep would have to wait a little while longer. With a heavy heart and a grudging fondness for the cause of it anyway, Lena set off towards Kara’s town with the kernel of fear in her mind that she could be caught and executed for her foolishness. And yet, she went anyway.

 


 

            The next morning, Alex was on her way out the door after breakfast when her foot collided with a damp bag sitting on their doorstep, and her brow furrowed with confusion, before widening with recognition. Hefting it up and grunting slightly at the weight of it, wondering what was inside, Alex stooped back through the door and held it aloft as Kara met her eyes.

 

            “Isn’t this your bag that was stolen?”

 

            Kara’s mouth fell open as she paled, her spoon clattering back into the bowl of porridge she was eating as her eyes went wide. “I- yeah. Where did you find it?”

 

            “It was on the doorstep,” Alex snorted, a faint smile of amusement on her lips as she gave Kara a bewildered look. “What kind of thief returns what they stole without taking anything?”

 

            “Maybe I was wrong,” Kara faintly mumbled, looking down at her food, “maybe they weren’t a thief at all. Maybe it was just … a misunderstanding.”

Chapter Text

            A sickness caught Kara unawares after her foray to the woods to see Lena, and subsequent damp march home in the cool evening air. A chill gripped her in its vice, her cheeks ruddy with fever as she lay bedridden for weeks, sweating through the sheets, eyes bright and unfocused and her face thinning as she survived on spoonfuls of broth her mother and sister dribbled through chapped lips. 

 

            With poultices and wet rags lain across her brow, Kara slowly recovered from the fever and was left restless and glum, propped up in her narrow bed with a sinus infection and a sore throat. She spent the rest of the first month of spring holed up in her small bedroom, drinking herbal teas to soothe the fire of her throat, left with nothing to do but read books as wafts of a warm breeze drifted in through her window, bringing the faint odour of grass and trees and rivers that lay beyond the dirty streets of the town. And with that, Kara couldn’t help but think of Lena.

 

            At first, she thought it was her heartbroken and guilty conscience that had resulted in her sickness, a curse of her own doing for her rash judgement, and yet, when she finally was freed from the confines of the small house, strong enough to return to work, Kara made no efforts to venture beyond the town. Shame left her too humiliated to make the long trek out to the woods to see Lena, to apologise, and the weeks stretched on, the weather warming with summer on the air as she whittled away the hours in the dark, musty printer’s shop, staining her skin with ink as she worked the press and sewed soft leather into fine little books.

 

            But still, Kara ached for Lena. Not a day passed when she didn’t think of her and it ate her up inside to be parted from her. When she took her lunch breaks, sitting on the edge of the stone fountain in the middle of the market square, Kara would trail her fingertips through the cool water, watching ripples fan out as she thought of the river near Lena’s woods. As she made commissioned books, she would read the pages and wonder if it was something Lena would’ve found interesting. She saw snatches of dark hair and imagined for a fleeting moment the witch had snuck in to see her, or passed stalls of unknown flowers and felt sure that Lena would be able to tell her what they were and what they could be used for.

 

            She yearned for her every day, and still, her pride couldn’t handle the mortifying journey to face the cold rejection of the witch once more. It would break her heart, and worst of all was the fact that Kara would’ve deserved it. Regret filled her heart and she wallowed in her bitterness as she talked herself out of going every single day. Until one day, she couldn’t bear it any longer.

 

            Summer had come and Kara had a rare day off. After a sleepless night that left her with purple bruises beneath her eyes, she rose just before dawn in the grey light of the moon, struck by the sudden urge to see Lena. It was like a siren’s song in the stories she wrote, needling through her muddled thoughts with startling clarity, and she scrambled into her clothes with desperation.

 

            Shirt untucked, coat unbuttoned and sword belt slung low on her hips, she dressed quickly, hesitated, before grabbing a book from the stacks cluttering her room, taking a brief moment to deliberate on her choices before she shoved the volume into one of her large coat pockets, and was down the stairs with the graceful padding of a thief, careful to skip the creaky step.

 

            The sky was violet when she ducked outside, quietly shutting the door and rubbing the sleep from her eyes. A chill clung to the lingering shadows of dawn, making her breath plume before her as she set off down the street, the smell of woodsmoke, grease and baking bread already drifting from the terraced homes of the town centre. The guards cast her a cursory glance as she stepped through the open gates, yawning and stretching her arms as she rolled her shoulders, readying herself for a long march through the hills.

 

            Her muscles tired more easily since her sickness, a thinness lingering in her cheeks from where she hadn’t fully recovered yet, and the sword was a heavy weight at her sides. Still, the fresh air was welcome, if a little rough against her tender throat, susceptible to the burning cold of early morning, but it soon abated as the sun steadily rose, setting the sky on fire and illuminating the path ahead.

 

            Mountains were a distant, tiny smudge of blue, just creeping above the far-off dips and peaks of rolling hills stretching out from the acres of fields, and Kara followed the beaten path through orchards and groves, breathing in the scent of apples, wildflowers and wheat. Pollen drifted on the breeze and birds chirped merrily, and she felt a spark of eager excitement at the prospect of seeing Lena, familiar and comforting as if nothing had changed between them.

 

            Of course, everything had changed though, and doubts and uneasiness crept into Kara’s mind as she walked, working up a sweat at her haste. She feared that Lena wouldn’t see her, that she’d be barred from the old forest, forbidden from ever entering again and pleading her case to the witch. The thoughts spoiled the freedom of being beyond the walls, and Kara tried not to dwell on them too much, choosing to put faith in Lena’s goodness instead. She knew she was good, she’d known it all along and had let a moment of doubt snare her, and she clung to the thought of Lena being forgiving enough to accept her apology.

 

            The sun crept higher in the sky, thin wisps of white clouds giving it a picturesque day as Kara walked along with her thoughts for company, shedding her blue coat and slinging it over one shoulder as she rolled up her sleeves and felt the sun on her cheeks. Her face had grown pale from long weeks spent indoors and she basked in the warm caress on her skin, a smile curling her lips as she passed fields of cows and sheep, spotted rams grazing towards the eastern cliffs, near the rocky seashore, and she wondered how the summer months were treating Lena. 

 

            Everything was in full bloom, greenery everywhere she could see, even in the bottom of the shallow rivers and streams she crossed, moss and lichen, seaweed and algae, reeds and weeds and flowers and plants. Trees hanging heavy with nuts and acorns and fruit. She snatches shiny red apples as she passed through a sweet-smelling orchard, balling a few up in the bottom of her unevenly buttoned shirt when her pockets were too full. They were still a bit sour as she bit into them, needing a few more weeks to ripen, but they filled her up as she made the long hike up to the hills.

 

            Tossing apple cores over her shoulders for the birds to feed on, she trampled grass studded with fields of dandelions and buttercups, daisies and violets, bending down to pick the prettier ones with sticky fingers, bunching them up in her clammy fist as she grew nauseous in her nearness to the Lena, closer than she’d been in months. Still, she gathered flowers with the solemnity of one doing penance, the greenness of their broken stems seeping into her palms as she climbed hills and down through gulleys.

 

            By the time she reached the top of the hill that gave way to the valley of Lena’s home, she was trembling with hollow nervousness, the flowers a thick bunch of pastels gripped in a white-knuckled hand, and the sun showed the time as mid-morning, warm and speaking of a hotter day yet to come. Thirsty and eager to slip into the cool shade of the woods, away from the sun’s burning touch, Kara scuffed and scrambled her way down the sloped ravine, off-balance in her desire to keep a tight grip of her gift of flowers. She fell more than once, staining the seat of her pants green from the grass, her fingernails clawing at the soft earth as she caught herself before she slid all the way down.

 

            Fishing her compass out of her pocket with her other hand, she swallowed thickly, her mouth dry with fear and thirst, and followed the wavering needle towards the copse of trees. They were in the throes of summer, impossibly rich and green, whispering to each other as Kara approached, and she felt an old fondness for the place, struck by a pang of homesickness that caught her off guard. After only a few visits to see Lena, especially given the rough footing they’d met on, it was shocking to feel so at home in the woods.

 

            Steeling herself, Kara exhaled forcefully and squared her shoulders, putting one foot in front of the other as she quickly crossed the thick meadow bordering the woods. The grass brushed her knees, bees, butterflies and dragonflies flitting through the stems as they ambled along on their business, and Kara was left to her own as well, the grass rustling around her as she pushed through it with anxious eagerness. 

 

            Tentatively stepping into the cover of the leafy canopy overhead, she was wrapped in the cool dampness of the woods, rich earth and sweet plants creating a heady aroma that was intoxicatingly inviting. And just when she thought that everything was fine, that there was no permanent enchantment clinging to her, just when she breathed out a quiet sigh of relief, looking into the dimness of the warren of trunks, thinking she was already partially forgiven, a dizziness slammed into her, wiping her mind clear of her thoughts.

 

            Stumbling backwards and slipping on a patch of rotting foliage, Kara sprawled onto her back, hands still clutching the flowers and the compass, and she blinked black spots away as she struggled to catch her breath. Her chest ached as her mouth opened and closed like a drowning fish, and it took her a few minutes to catch her bearings, her mind feeling like it had been stuffed with wool as her skin prickled. 

 

            There was a faint ringing in her ears as she climbed to her feet, sword battering against her legs as she tightened her grip on the compass and staggered about, her mind as fuzzy as the time she’d tried to find Lena on her own - the second time. Shaking her head and blinking rapidly to shake the sensation off, she ran her tongue over her teeth, tasting the strange metallic tang cutting through the greenness of nature. Her tongue felt thick in her mouth, prickling with the same needling sensation that covered her body as if bees lived beneath her skin.

 

            Breathing turned ragged, Kara’s brow furrowed into a perplexed look as she looked down at the compass in her hand, the needle swaying slightly as it adjusted to Lena’s movements, and Kara looked around, peering through the impenetrable thicket of brambles and ferns and trailing branches. Lena was in there somewhere, and she wouldn’t take no for an answer this time. She would push through the disorienting magic that shrouded her, if only to catch a glimpse of the witch that had ensnared her mind.

 

            Putting one foot in front of the other, she felt an almost tangible pressure before her, built up like a wall, the air muggy and close as she reached out to touch it. Her hand went right through the sensation without any resistance, although her movements were slowed with the same effect of walking through water. Gritting her teeth, Kara waded forward through it, even as her stomach roiled with sickening nausea. 

 

            It only got worse as she pushed on, a cold sweat breaking out on her skin as she scuffed up dirt and leaves, leaving obvious tracks in her wake as her breathing turned laboured and her mind went blank. It was like her head had been poked full of holes, her brain unable to retain any information, despite the sense of purpose that drove her body onwards. Over rotting logs and through trailing willow branches, through waist-high ferns and blackberry bushes heavy with fruit and prickly with thorns. 

 

            Her body was pricked and sliced by plants as she struggled through the underbrush, snaking vines and roots tripping her up, threatening to twist ankles, the rustling trees growing louder as she passed beneath their boughs, branches creaking and snapping as the finger-like twigs at the ends got tangled in her hair and left thin pink scratches on her skin. Moss and lichen clung to every surface, ferns pushing up through carpets of bronze leaves carpeting the floor, and she scrambled over furry boulders of green, velvety to touch as they created shallow valleys and banks for her to traverse in her search. Her eyes were owlishly wide and vacant, nearly black in the deep shadows of the wilder clusters of the woods and Kara would’ve been frightened if not for the fact that she was in Lena’s domain.

 

            Still, there was an ominous feeling in the air as she wandered aimlessly, the compass slipping from her fingers without her even noticing, the old coat belonging to her father snagged on a branch and left dangling in midair as she staggered onwards. Even the flowers picked along the way were looking worse for wear, petals squashed or missing entirely, leaving her with a fistful of green stalks and broken flowers that she clung to with desperation.

 

            Without even meaning to, she was turned around in circles, wandering with no clue where she was or where Lena was. Not once did she stumble upon the cottage, despite the fact that forest wasn’t that big. And she never came to the edge of the thicket either, although sometimes there was a greenish tint to the light that filtered through gaps in the canopy, speaking of sparser trees with less animosity perhaps. Instead, Kara stuck to the shadows, caught up in a spell that she was never meant to test. And all the while, she was left with the sinister feeling of being watched.

 

            Hours slipped by without any sign of awareness from Kara as she walked and walked until she was covered in dirt and scrapes and cuts, streaks of blood on her hands and knuckles and face and throat. Her hair was a bird's nest of leaves and twigs and dirt, sweat streaking through the coating of brown dust stirred up underfoot as she carried on, propelled forwards by feet lost in their own will.

 

            The sun climbed higher in the sky, and with it, the cool shade of the forest warmed minutely - not enough to be called hot, but uncomfortably warm to someone who had been walking since the crack of dawn without a single drop of water to whet her thirst. Eventually, bordering on hallucinations and delirium, Kara stood inside the confines of the trailing fronds of a massive weeping willow, long, thin leaves trailing from slender branches as its large roots fanned out across blackened and disturbed ground. The trunk was the size of four men standing shoulder to shoulder, a greenish patch running through a crack of rough bark like a new scar.

 

            She stood there for a moment before she was propelled forward by her feet and laid a bare hand against the smoothness of the green wood, new and unblemished and soft to the touch. Her hand trembled some, half-moons of dirt beneath her fingernails, knuckles bleeding and covered in mud, and it was like all of the energy left in her was suddenly depleted. Exhaustion made her knees buckle and Kara forgot what she was doing, who she was looking for, even where she was as a blankness swept through her mind and her eyes slide closed.

 

            In a large hollow between two gnarled, creeping roots, she dropped like a sack of stones to the carpet of leaves and folded in on herself as darkness knifed through her mind and carried her off with it. Sleep stole upon her without warning, and with her back against one of the roots, Kara slept soundly in the cradling embrace of the old willow, knees to her chest and head drooping forward as she quietly snored. 

 

            Kara didn’t dream, didn’t stir, didn’t move an inch as she fell into a stupor that she might’ve thought was a spell under different circumstances if she was clear-headed enough to be wary of such things. Instead, she slept with a cluster of green stems tightly clasped in her fist as roots slowly started to twine around her. Slender roots, barely as thick as her fingers, creeping out from beneath the willow, worming their way up through the ground to coil around her ankles, her arms, her thighs, her chest. Everywhere they could slowly creep around, binding her in place as magic hummed through her blood, keeping her paralysed through sleep, unaware of her impending doom.

 

            And then through the blank nothingness of sleep, there was a voice. A quiet voice at the back of her mind, so far away that it was a faint whisper that nagged at Kara’s unconscious mind. She wasn’t dreaming, wasn’t aware of her surroundings or that the voice was even there. She couldn’t hear it, so deep in the grips of the magic. But there was that voice at the back of her head, nagging and insistent, an alarming edge to the sharpness of it.

 

            Wake up. Wake up. Wake up! WAKE UP!

 

            The last one was so loud that it startled Kara awake. Jolting in the grip of the roots with the peculiar feeling of shout ringing in her ears, fading away. Blinking sluggishly, she moved her head slightly, disoriented and lethargic, a small groan falling from her lips as she strained against the bonds. There was the vague notion of being watched, and a small crease formed between Kara’s eyebrows as she blinked slowly, head lolling to the side until they landed on the shadowed figure looming over her.

 

            “Don’t move,” a low voice warned her.

 

            It was familiar, and recognition lanced through Kara as her body tensed, fingers tightening reflexively around the tatters of flowers she still carried with her as her eyelashes fluttered and she tried to sit up more. Kara made a low sound of protest at the back of her throat as she found herself unable to move, face crumpling with confusion as her mind blurred everything together.

 

            “Lena?”

 

            A frigid wind struck her face, whipping her head back and thumping painfully against the large root cradling her curled up body. Grumbling in pain she blinked rapidly, the smell of pine enveloping her as she coughed a few times, her head suddenly feeling a thousand times lighter as she lowered her head. Blearily looking through slitted eyes, she frowned as a headache pulsed at her temples. 

 

            The woollen fuzziness in her mind was gone, replaced with a prickle of urgent confusion, and Kara stiffened as she looked around, her eyes barely pausing on Lena as she tried to catch her bearings. Her feet scrabbled against the bark of the root near her feet, the bonds curling tight around her, and she let out an exclamation of surprise at the thin tendrils wrapped around her.

 

            “What-”

 

            “I said don’t move,” Lena sharply said, her voice flat yet urgent.

 

            Stilling, Kara swallowed her fear and any other questions, her eyes tracking Lena as she moved closer and placed her hand against the patch of green on the trunk. Palm flat, she closed her eyes and bowed her head, a v forming between her eyebrows out of concentration.

 

            “It’s time to sleep, old friend. Release her from your roots. Take what is mine to heal. Take what I freely give you in exchange for her freedom.”

 

            Kara’s mouth was dry as she watched Lena with rapt attention, an emerald glow spreading from her hand as it disappeared into the trunk of the old willow, making it seem like it was aglow from the inside out. And still, the roots bound her tightly, and she could’ve sworn they tightened a little bit more around her paralysed body. The knife-shaped leaves rustled as the trailing branches swayed on an invisible breeze, and Lena’s expression darkened as she cocked her head to the side, almost as if she was listening to some silent conversation that Kara couldn’t hear.

 

            “You’re hungry? I shall feed you. Sleep now. Let her go and I will heal you.”

 

            As if the tree was listening to Lena, the roots slackened slightly and slowly began to retract as the emerald light seeped through the tree, weaving down through the tangle of roots and up through the branches, encasing them in a dome of green light. The magic that Lena poured into the old willow followed the paths of the veins and Kara was mesmerised as she watched it slowly spread to the roots wrapped around her as they crept away, freeing her from their tight grip. She imagined she’d have bruises in the morning, her skin feeling tender and sore.

 

            When she was finally free enough to move, Kara scrambled to her feet, hand feeling for the rough bark of the trunk to steady herself, leaning back against it, and drew in a ragged breath as Lena pulled back from the trunk and stepped away from her. Relief crashed through Kara, strong enough to make her knees buckle, and she gave the witch a trembling smile.

 

            “Thank you, I-”

 

            With the rasp of metal against leather, Kara’s sword went flying from its scabbard towards Lena, who had drawn her hand back beside her head in a claw. The sword stopped inches from her hand, hovering in midair, the point trained in Kara’s direction. And then she saw the livid look on Lena’s face, bathed in an eerie green light and deep shadows of the woods, and Kara realised that she wasn’t forgiven. Not yet.

 

            “You shouldn’t have come back,” Lena said, her voice quiet and dangerous, a current of simmering anger and wild threats in the words, “I told you not to come back.”

 

            “I had to see you,” Kara blurted out, fraught with desperation as she gave her a pleading look.

 

            Slowly pushing her hand forward, guiding the sword towards Kara, Lena stopped it a fraction from the skin of her exposed neck as Kara swallowed thickly, throat bobbing and ghosting against the razor-sharp point. Staring down the length of steel, it reminded her of their first encounter and sadness bloomed in her chest at the thought of their backwards steps.

 

            “I should drive this sword through you and leave you for the trees to consume. That’s what they want. Perhaps I should give it to them. After all, it’s what a witch would do, is it not? It’s what you expect from me.”

 

            “I’m sorry,” Kara breathlessly whispered as tears pricked her eyes. She raised her right hand with the ruined flowers and held them out, before she blinked in surprise, realising that they had been reduced to stems and stray petals from her wanderings. “Oh.”

 

            Unclenching her fist, stems rained down to the scored ground at her feet, and she worked the few stuck to her clammy palm free as her cheeks reddened.

 

            “I brought you flowers but … I guess they got ruined. I- I wanted to come a long time ago. I regretted what I said the moment I said it and … I couldn’t step foot in here. Whatever you did to me … I felt sick. I wanted to apologise immediately, but I couldn’t and then- then I caught a chill. I was too sick to make the journey and … well, I didn’t think you’d want to see me anyway. But … I can’t stop thinking about you.”

 

            Closing her eyes, Kara drew in a shuddering breath, her chest expanding as she breathed in deeply, the smell of damp wood and pine filling her nose, comforting and fresh. Falling limply back against the trunk of the willow, she exhaled softly, deflating as exhaustion washed over her.

 

            “I truly can’t. I’ve thought about you every day since, even knowing how much you must despise me. Every day I’ve wondered what you’re doing, where you are, how you are. If you were up in the mountains searching for some … rock that can only be used in some ritual that takes place on the third full moon of autumn, or- I don’t know. I just- I missed you. I missed you every day and I’m sorry . I know I behaved rash, that I hurt you, treated you like you were some common criminal who wants to hurt people. I know I was wrong - I knew it the moment I said it. The moment I blamed you. But … I’ve spent my whole life believing these things said about- about your kind, and I don’t believe them anymore, I don’t believe that you would ever hurt someone - not even now, when you’re so angry at me - but I panicked. At that moment, I jumped to the worst conclusion when I’d promised to trust you. I know it’s no excuse, but that’s not how I really feel. I know there’s only goodness in your heart. I understand if you don’t trust me, if you think the worst of me and make me go again. I even give you permission to take all of my memories of you, if that’s what it takes to ensure you feel safe out here. But … I would miss you. And I think my heart would ache for you every day for the rest of my life, even if I couldn’t remember what it was aching for. I just- I had to apologise. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

 

            Surprise flashed across Lena’s face so quickly that, for a moment, Kara doubted it had even been there. But there was a subtle softening to her face, a reserved wariness as she wavered in her anger, as if she wanted to believe Kara’s words more than anything, but was hesitant to be hurt again. And Kara couldn’t blame her as she stood silently, the tip of the sword dipping slightly to graze the hollow between her collarbones as a cold sweat dampened her skin.

 

            “I know what is in my heart,” Lena murmured, “and I know what is in yours too. You mean well, but your ignorance runs deep, to the core of your bones. I have already given you a second chance; what assurance do I have that you wouldn’t doubt me again?”

 

            “Only my word,” Kara said.

 

            Arching an eyebrow, Lena’s mouth curved into a faint smile, “last time, you offered me your heart. A greater price, to be sure.”

 

            “You rejected the offer last time. You said they’re wild creatures with teeth, and it would bite the hand that takes it, even still as I offered it freely to you. I would offer it again if I thought you would take it. But, as it is, I only have more word to offer in place of my heart. And a book.”

 

            “A book?” Lena snorted.

 

            With a thin smile, Kara slowly reached from her coat pocket before realising that she wasn’t wearing it. Eyes searching the ground for a hint of the faded blue, her expression crumpled.

 

            “Oh … my coat. I’ve … misplaced it.”

 

            “You would’ve misplaced your life if I hadn’t found you.”

 

            Suppressing a shiver, Kara turned her head to the side to look at the glowing willow tree she was pressed up against, with a foreboding sense that the tree very much did not like her. Rubbing her arm with her hand, she looked back at Lena with a flicker of unease in her blue eyes.

 

            “What happened, exactly?”

 

            “There was some … damage done to the trees in this clearing. I fed them my magic through this old willow to heal, and the lingering effects of it ensnared you. The tree would’ve pulled you beneath its roots and suffocated you alive, all while you slept in a magic-induced sleep, as the trees fed off your bones and finished healing. They’re not normally so carnivorous, I assure you, but magic … it can do strange things. Like, make someone wander for hours through the woods, turned around and lost until they drop from exhaustion.”

 

            “Hm,” Kara grimly mused, “I should’ve known better than to test what you’d done to me on our last parting.”

 

            “You should’ve known better about a lot of things,” Lena replied, somewhat prickly.

 

            The frostiness of her tone knifed through Kara, causing her to wince slightly with guilt, even as Lena slowly lowered the sword, thrusting her hand downwards and spearing the blade between Kara’s feet. Turning her back on her, Lena clasped her hands behind her and stared at the glowing weeping willow branches as the leaves brushed the ground.

 

            Slowly reaching for the hilt of her sword, Kara pulled it from the soft earth, wiping the blade against her grimy breeches and sliding it back home in its scabbard, before she took a wary step towards Lena. The witch glanced over her shoulder with a piercing look in her eyes as she gave Kara an appraising look, taking in her dirty and dishevelled appearance, the unevenly buttoned shirt, half tucked in and covered in minute tears, sticky sap and grass stains, to say nothing of the wild, messy curls.

 

            “I’ll help you retrieve your items and I’ll walk you to the border,” Lena stated.

 

            “I- I’m not sure where I was when I lost them.”

 

            Lena let out a quiet laugh, cold and sharp, as she parted the curtain of leaves and stepped through the gap. Kara followed suit, standing in the green light of the forest, a foot away from Lena with an ache in her chest as she looked at her with unabashed yearning.

 

            “I can retrace your every step since you crossed the boundary of my home,” Lena murmured, “you think I would not have wards set up to warn me of intruders?”

           

            Swallowing the disappointment that welled up inside, Kara ducked her head as her mouth thinned into a bitter line. 

 

            “So then … you knew I was here. Looking for you.”

 

            “Of course . Your determination is admirable; I thought you would’ve given up hours ago; you would’ve found yourself back where you started.”

 

            Brow furrowing, Kara looked up towards the canopy, eyes narrowed as she tried to gauge the sun’s position. “What time is it now?”

 

            “The sun has already passed it’s highest peak. Come.”

 

            Setting off without another word, Lena stalked through the trees with purpose, taking an ambling path that seemed random, yet must’ve been the wandering route Kara had taken as she’d staggered deliriously over rocks and roots, catching herself on brambles and trees with her one-track mind. Hurrying after her, Kara gripped the pommel of her sword, her shoulders slumped with weariness even as her heart leapt at the sliver of hope.

 

            “You brought my bag back as well,” Kara said after a few moments, trying to fill the stifling silence of the forest, the trees seeming to still at their passing.

 

            “I’m not a thief; I had no use for your belongings.”

 

            “It was risky for you to come to the town.”

 

            “As I said, I had no use of whatever was inside.”

 

            Kara quietly chuckled to herself, a smile curling her mouth as she stared at Lena’s back. “So, you didn’t look inside, I take it?”

 

            “I’m not in the habit of prying into other people’s affairs.”

 

            “I was bringing you supplies,” Kara said as they clambered down a gentle slope, leaves skittering as she half-slid before it levelled out to a flat stretch studded with trees and summer plants. “You were running low last time I visited. I thought I’d bring you some things to tide you over until summer brought more crops and ripe food for you. You know, flour, lentils, spices. A few cuts of good meats. Chocolate, too.”

 

            Abruptly turning around, Lena gave her a blank look as Kara almost slammed into her, pulling up short and slipping on a patch of foliage. Lena’s hand shot out and encircled her upper arm like a vice, righting Kara’s footing before she quickly let go, as if branded.

 

            “You brought me supplies?”

 

            “Yes.”

 

            “Why?”

 

            Shrugging helplessly, Kara averted her eyes, her cheeks pink as she stared at the impenetrable leagues of trees surrounding them.

 

            “I don’t know. I just- I didn’t want you risking sneaking into villages to buy things you’re low on. One whisper of suspicion and … well, you know how it goes. That’s what you were trying to prevent with- with the girl.”

 

            Staring at her for a moment, a flicker of hard wariness in the depths of her eyes, Lena turned back around and quickened her pace, leaving Kara to follow. 

 

            “I brought a book then too. I was reading it at work; it was about fairytales. Folklore. Myths. I thought you might enjoy it. Now that I think about it though, there were a lot of witches in it. Perhaps it’s a good idea I brought a different one this time. It’s not got any witches at all. At first, I thought- I thought one about plants might be useful. But then I realised you probably know about every plant that grows in the area, so what good would that be? History seemed like a bad topic too, and it’s very dense. I figured you already knew quite a bit about healing too, and then some, what with your magic.”

 

            Lena let out a withering sigh as she kept up her relentless march, this way and that, her eyes scanning the area for Kara’s lost belongings, while Kara scurried after her, breathless and nervously babbling as she tried to fill the tense silence with as much nonsense as she could.

 

            “I decided on one of poetry instead. I’ve read it many times and it’s one of my favourites. They’re all about nature, by a prolific sailor who’s travelled to many lands and brings her poems to our shop when she docks at the nearby port. She’s quite popular. Well, so, her poems are mostly about nature and I thought you might like that, what with your wandering about all the time. There are ones about the sea and- and foreign cities. Mountains, beaches, the creatures she’s come upon. And forests, I’m sure. I thought you might like it. It would keep the loneliness at bay.”

 

            “I’m perfectly content with my own company,” Lena sharply replied, spine ramrod straight as she bristled.

 

            “Well, it’s entertaining, to be sure. I’m certain you’ll like it.”

 

            Even with her back to Kara, there was an air of bitter amusement as she replied, brittle voice fraught with snark. “And you’ve made it so clear that you know me so well.”

 

            Mouth opening and closing, Kara slowed in her pace before she fought to catch back up, falling into step beside Lena this time as they wound through a patch of pines, needles brushing her arm and face.

 

            “Okay, you’re still mad at me. I understand. But I really did mean what I said, and I want to prove it to you.”

 

            A scoff of laughter fell from Lena’s lips as Kara stared at the side of her face, looking for familiar warmth and finding it impassive. Lena didn’t look at her as she brushed through the pines and firs, a cloud of woody freshness enveloping them as they crushed needles underfoot and released their sweet perfume. 

 

            “Some things take time.”

 

            “I’ve got time,” Kara lightly replied, “plenty of it.”

 

            Giving her a cool sideways look, Lena’s mouth twitched with a ghost of a smile. “It’s not your time it’s going to take.”

 

            “Oh.”

 

            They walked on in silence, the air close, yet cool as they weaved through dappled patches of shade, retracing Kara’s wandering steps at a relentless pace, as if Lena couldn’t get her out of the forest quick enough. Determined not to lose her, Kara kept pace, her shirt clinging to her damp skin as her cheeks reddened and fatigue dragged at her body. Still, she never complained once or asked for a reprieve, even as every fibre of her being screamed for rest, for a single drop of water. 

 

            Her coat was found after miles of tramping through the trees, navigating moss-covered rocks and gentle inclines, until Kara was even filthier than she’d been when Lena had found her, which was saying something. But there it was, hanging on a branch as if she’d set it upon it herself, like a hook. Pulling it took, Kara shook it out, the thick fabric snapping in the quiet air, and she pulled it on for the comforting familiarity, before shoving her hand into a large pocket and pulling out the thin, battered volume of poems.

 

            “Here! Poems. For you.”

 

            With a wary look, Lena slowly reached out and took it in her slender fingers, the tips slightly brushing against Kara’s in what was a seemingly careless gesture. Pulling it back, Lena stared down at the worn leather cover and let it part to a random, yellowed page. Her eyes skimmed the dark words printed in indigo ink, an eagerness to the way she drank in the words that belied her stoic nature.

 

            Firmly snapping the book shut with one hand, Lena fixed her with a level stare for a moment, cradling the book with surprising gentleness, before she inclined her head and hid the book somewhere beneath the folds of her green cloak.

 

            “Thank you.”

 

            A smile stretched across Kara’s face, soft with delight, and she nodded in acknowledgement of the words as her heart leapt at the casual contact. Looking at her for a moment longer, Lena nodded once more and turned to keep walking.

 

            “The compass is probably going to be a lot harder to find than the coat,” Kara commented, her breathing laboured as they hiked up a slippery incline, pushing through reaching branches that whipped her arms and face.

 

            “Never mind that; I’ll find it.”

 

            Kara pressed her lips together in a flat line after that, truth ringing in Lena’s words, and a little haste too, if Kara wasn’t mistaken. She would see her off her land as quickly as possible, and Kara wished that they would never find it, that she could dwell amidst the moss and ferns and twisted trees as dusk crept in, the two of them wandering aimlessly until the tension dissipated and familiar conversation and warm laughter rang throughout the woods.

 

            Instead, she walked with bowed shoulders, the heavy burden of her actions weighing her down as she plodded along, each step a greater effort than the last until she didn’t feel like she could continue. Sweat dampened her hairline and stung her eyes, the thick wool of her coat shrouding her in a warm blanket of heat, and she finally had to stop, bracing herself against a patch of lichen-covered bark, drawing in a ragged gasp as she reached out for Lena.

 

            “Wait-”

 

            At the sound of her rasping plea, Lena turned around, eyebrows raised in an expectant look, and Kara stood tall as she pushed off the tree, swaying where she was for a moment as she locked eyes with Lena. Her cheeks were red, her eyes unfocused, and she opened her mouth to speak, but was cut off as her whole body went slack, like a puppet with its strings cut. 

 

            Sagging, Kara dropped towards the ground, blackness furring the edges of her vision as unconsciousness swept over her in one dizzying wave. She was none the wiser as she slipped away without even meaning to, with no control over her body as the ground reached up to meet her. And she didn’t see the frantic step forward that Lena took, thrusting a hand out to catch her before she hit the ground, or hear the sharp cry of panicked surprise that fell from her chapped lips.

 

            With a wave of her hand, Lena made Kara’s body rise into midair, five feet off the ground and rotating slowly so that she was on her back, coat hanging limply from her back as she lay still, seemingly asleep. Cursing as she slid across leaves and crashed through the bracken brushing her knees, Lena reached Kara’s side and stared down at her flushed cheeks with wide green eyes, lips parting with worry.

 

            Reaching out to feel the sluggish beating of Kara’s heart at her throat, and the feverish touch of her skin, Lena let out a heavy sigh, staring at Kara’s hanging body and then turned around, beckoning at the body, which started to trail after her like a lost puppy. Turning from the path she’d been following, invisible to the eye, she cut a path to the right, traipsing through the woods with the knowledge of every inch of the old forest and started making for home.

 

            Kara’s body drifted after her like she was tethered to her by an invisible string, a kite trailing along without a breeze to carry it. She didn’t stir at all, not even when the path between the trees grew too narrow for Lena to easily manoeuvre her, earning the unconscious woman a few more new bumps and scratches as Lena winced with guilt. 

 

            Eventually, they came upon the small cottage, a mound of brick, moss and ivy, almost blending in with its surroundings, save for the small windows of warped glass and the worn wooden door identifying it as a home. Summer flowers grew in colourful patches beneath the open windows - the only change since Kara’s last visit - and the door swung inwards at Lena’s approach. 

 

            Inside was dim and messy, and Lena blinked rapidly as her eyes adjusted, leading Kara’s still form over to the small bed tucked against the wall. Carefully lowering her onto the lumpy mattress and the threadbare patchwork quilt, Lena loomed over her as she summoned a flickering flame in her hand, casting an orange glow over the near vicinity as she looked down at her slack face.

 

            Turning her back on her, a strange sense of protectiveness taking hold of her despite her anger, Lena quickly lit a few stubby candles to illuminate the place and opened the few remaining closed curtains and windows to let in shafts of green light. Moving around the place, she nonchalantly waved her hand and snapped her fingers, sparks trailing or little flashes of light with the cantrips she cast, sending open books spread across the old table back to their shelves, dirty dishes to the sink and herbs to hang themselves from the rafters above her head.

 

            With a few pumps, she had a bowl of water on the table, cool and earthy, and she roughly chopped a lemon and stripped mint leaves from the stem, leaving them to steep in the water as she shed her cloak, rolled her sleeves up and moved back to Kara’s bedside. Staring down at her face for a moment, Lena hesitated, before reaching down to get her out of her coat. It was a struggle that left her irritable and red-faced from the exertion of moving the dead weight of her body to pull the coat off, yet she was gentle, knowing that the coat was special to Kara, instead of tearing it in half like she truly wished to.

 

            Unbuckling the sword belt, she rested it against the wall and neatly folded the coat near Kara’s feet, before reaching down to press a cold hand against her clammy forehead. Pumping some more water from the well, Lena dipped a clean rag into it and set it across Kara’s forehead, taking in the straining veins pulsing beneath her pink skin, and fetched the bowl of steeping water, before settling down on the edge of the bed.

 

            With a small clay cup, Lena perched on the edge of the mattress and filled it with the refreshing water and set about dribbling small doses of it through Kara’s dry lips, in between dipping the rag into the jug of cold water to cool down her temperature. It was time-consuming, but Lena was patient, her years of living alone in the wild with her own affairs to tend to at her whim leaving her with diligence to wait, and she managed to get two cupfuls down Kara’s throat before she was satisfied.

 

            Draining another cup for herself, the sourness of the lemon cut through with the pleasantness of the mint, Lena felt the cold seep through her chest, making her more alert as the long hours of the day stretched on. It would be dusk soon, and Kara would be expected home, yet she slumbered unaware of the constraints of time, and Lena knew she wouldn’t be able to make the long trek home. Not worn down to the point of exhaustion, battered and bruised as she was.

 

            Of course, Lena could float her all the way home without so much as blinking an eye on a normal day, but she’d nearly depleted herself, giving away so much of her magic to the old willow in exchange for Kara’s life that she could feel her eyes growing heavy with tiredness where she sat. Not to mention the fact that she would be seen and captured, unless she fought back with blood and death, a prospect that made her shudder with revulsion. She couldn’t manage the walk herself, carrying Kara over her shoulder either, leaving the only logical option as Kara spending the night in the small cottage, commandeering Lena’s modest bed. That in itself posed a threat to Lena, with Kara’s sister worrying about her safety.

           

            Looking at the sleeping woman, golden hair a mess of dirt, twigs and leaves, Lena let out a heavy sigh, deflating as the frustration fled out of her, leaving exhausted resignation in its place. Her lips thinned to a grim smile as she looked at Kara’s peaceful face, a fondness kindling in her chest.

 

            “I should’ve taken your memories and let you go,” Lena whispered with sadness.

 

            Changing the rag once more, she climbed to her feet, taking the water with her, and sat down in an old armchair, the padded seat sagging with wear as she sank into it and pulled out the thin volume of poems Kara had given her. With a long night ahead of her, spent feeding Kara water and broth as she waited for her to recover from her exhaustion and dehydration, Lena settled in for a night of vigil with the poems.

 

            And while she found that she did enjoy the poems, feeling kindred like-mindedness in the poet’s fondness for nature and the beauty of their prose, Lena found herself too preoccupied to dwell in the words. Her attention was dragged back to Kara every minute as the candles burned down lower, dripping wax onto the scarred table, and Lena found herself incapable of looking away from the shadows pooling in the dips of Kara’s peaceful face. Perhaps it was the fact that no one had ever spent the night in her cottage before, or maybe there was something more to it than that - Lena didn’t know - but she couldn’t bring herself to look away, no matter how hard she tried. 

 

            In the early hours of the morning, after a long night of tending to Kara, putting salves on her cuts and bruises, making her comfortable in the narrow bed, tucking her beneath the quilt with surprising tenderness and painstakingly spooning fatty broth from the stew she’d made the night before, Lena fell asleep in the old armchair. With the book of poems splayed open in her lap as sleep crept up on her, Lena fell asleep looking at Kara.

Chapter Text

            Dim green light streamed in through the small windows of the cottage as mid-morning sunlight wormed its way down through the canopy and into the small, cluttered space. Kara lay stretched out on the bed, in the same position Lena had set her down in, out cold as the witch slept soundly in the chair she’d been reading in. Nothing stirred inside the cottage, the fire reduced to ashes in the fireplace and a mess of herbs and potions were strewn across the long table from Lena’s ministrations as she’d cared for Kara’s wounds and magic-induced exhaustion. Both of them were oblivious to the lateness of the morning, and the pressing matter of Kara’s lingering presence and the impending doom of her Witch Hunter sister.

 

            It was almost noon by the time Lena stirred, her neck stiff and her eyes gritty with tiredness from the long night and the draining of her magic. It took her a moment to recall why she was sleeping in the chair, why her body was so heavy with exhaustion and why she was looking at the lumpy form in deep shadows as the sunlight made it hard for her to distinguish what she was looking at. Blinking as her forehead creased with confusion, yesterday’s events slowly trickled back in and Lena quickly pushed herself to her feet with urgency, pausing as a thin book fell from her lap to the floor.

 

            Pausing to stoop down and pick it up, she thumbed through the pages of poetry was an odd feeling in her chest, one not felt for many years now, and moved towards the bed. Reaching down, Lena roughly shook Kara awake with a prickle of unease, her eyes darting around the place, her magic sending out feelers to check the unbroken wards and tripwires crisscrossing her forest. All of them were undisturbed, the trees as calm as ever, and that made Lena even tenser as she waited, holed up in her home like meek prey. Anyone who came to oust to the stake would be in for a sorry surprise if they thought she’d go quietly.

 

            “Kara,” Lena sharply said, shaking the sleeping figure’s shoulders with persistent haste.

 

            A groan slipped from Kara’s lips as she stirred slightly, sleep still holding her tightly in its grip as it refused to relinquish its hold on her. Mumbling incoherent nonsense, Kara’s head lolled back to the side as her eyelashes fluttered and her breathing evened out again. Agitated and impatient, Lena shook her again.

 

            “Kara! Wake up! You need to leave. Now.”

 

            Watching as Kara’s face crumpled with irritation as her eyes opened to narrow slits, Lena stared at her expectantly, pale and annoyed, and watched as realisation dawned on Kara’s face. Her expression went slack and she bolted upright in bed, blanching as her eyes went wide.

 

            “Oh no.”

 

            “Yeah.”

 

            “No, no, no . Oh God, Alex is going to kill me,” Kara breathlessly scrambled out of bed, letting out a hiss of pain as her sore muscles protested.

 

            “She’s going to kill me,” Lena bitterly said, giving Kara a sideways glance as she turned away, shoulders taut and brimming with nervous energy.

 

            Mouth opening and closing, Kara scrubbed a hand over her face, blinking back sleep as she stood slumped with bone-leaden tiredness that left her feeling hollowed out and faint. Raking a hand through her messy hair, so tangled from snagging on branches and her multiple falls that her fingers got caught in her locks, Kara cleared her throat as she looked at Lena with worry.

 

            “I won’t tell her where I was,” Kara assured her, honesty and earnestness colouring her words.

 

            Glancing back over her shoulder at her, Lena gave her a thin smile, trailing her thumb over the spine of the book she held as age-old bitterness cut deep. Kara’s intentions were good, she knew that but it didn’t change the fact that Lena was a witch, and most people would see her hang on that premise alone. No questions asked. 

 

            For a young woman to be missing overnight, the town would be alerted of the fact and the Hunters would be on the prowl for a witch, their suspicions automatically turning to witchcraft as foul play. They might’ve been searching for Kara since dusk the night before, fanning out from the tall walls of the town, picking up farmers and blacksmiths and millers along the way, armed with pitchforks and torches as they searched high and low, slowly encroaching on Lena’s territory. 

 

            Her stomach plummeted at the thought, a lump lodged in her throat as cold fear slid down her spine, making the hairs on her arm stand on end. Setting the book down on the table, Lena forced herself to swallow, taking a few deep breaths to calm herself as she hunched her shoulders, her back to Kara.

 

            “That might not be enough.”

 

            “I’ll make sure it is,” Kara firmly replied, stubborn and insistent as she picked up her dirty coat, brushing off mud and grass before shaking it out and donning it. “No harm will come to you because of me. I promise.”

 

            With a strained laugh, condescending in comparison to Kara’s naïvety, Lena looked her lips and turned around, a wild-eyed edge of panic in her eyes as she gave Kara a lopsided smile. Wrapping her arms around herself as she leant against the table, Lena shook her hair, wild dark locks fanning around her as her face fell with a forlorn look.

 

            “It’s not up to you. I’ve seen this before. It might not matter, in the long run. I can free myself from the pyre easily enough, can splinter their bodies apart with a thought, but I don’t want to fight . I don’t want to lose my home. My life has been peaceful here, until-”

 

            Ducking her head, Kara nodded to herself, a defeated slump to her shoulders as she rubbed the back of her neck, her scabbard clutched in one hand. “Until you met me.”

 

            “I’m not like you, Kara,” Lena murmured, sadness wrenching her yearning heart. “I don’t blame you for coming to me that first day. For wanting to save your sister. But we’ve been playing with fire every time since. It’s folly to think otherwise, and, in truth, it was inevitable that there would come a time that both of us would perhaps be endangered by our meetings. Perhaps it’s better that it’s come sooner, rather than later. Before it got too out of hand.”

 

            Picking up the book of poems again, Lena held it in both of her hands, fingers splayed over the cover before she held it out to Kara. Head rising at the motion of it being extended, Kara looked at the book and then up at Lena with clouded confusion in her blue eyes, not understanding.

 

            “Here.”

 

            “What?”

 

            “It belongs to you.”

 

            The meaning behind returning the book was obvious to them both, signifying the end of the risky game they were playing by allowing Kara to step into the woods and pretend that the two of them were ordinary friends. It put both of them at risk, knowing that Lena would be exposed and forced to leave her quiet life amidst the trees she called friends behind, while suspicion would be cast upon Kara as a sympathiser. It wouldn’t surprise Lena if they tried to burn her at the stake too, complicit in Lena’s crime of merely being born. That was too steep a price to pay, to bring ruin to them both. 

 

            Kara’s conflicting emotions were written on her face as she looked at Lena. Acceptance, stubbornness, grief, defeat, worry. She wanted to stay but knew she had to leave and it hurt them both to see it happen, but Lena managed to hide her own feelings behind a carefully crafted mask. 

 

            “Keep it,” Kara softly replied, her voice a wavering tenor as she struggled to compose herself. “It’s yours.”

 

            Nodding slowly, Lena hugged the book to her chest, watching as Kara buckled the sword belt on, fumbling to get the prong into the hole as her hands trembled slightly. The urge to cry built inside her chest like a bubble, waiting to be burst and bring forth tears at the painful sting of goodbye. Kara had never been good with goodbyes, despite the losses sustained over the years, and this one wasn’t any easier, even though Lena was very much alive. Goodbye meant the same thing when you knew you’d never see someone again.

 

            Pockets still bulging with apples in an almost comical way, given everything she’d been through, Kara slowly pulled them out with pink-cheeked embarrassment, leaving the fruit she’d picked for Lena on the table as a last parting gift before she looked at her. A too-bright smile stretched across her face, her eyes shining with forced indifference, yet she couldn’t quite meet Lena’s eyes.

 

            “Well, I’ll be off then.”

 

            Nodding again, resolute in her silence, Lena moved towards the door, willowy and graceful, and pulled open the wooden door, staring out into the thick, impenetrable copse of trees crowding in around her home. Nothing stirred, and even the trees seemed to still at the tension radiating from Lena. Her eyes were sharp and watchful, breathing slowly as she waited for a laid trap to spring. 

 

            It never happened, and that felt all the more wrong for its absence. The Witch Hunters were rabid and bloodthirsty, pulling any young woman from their beds to take for interrogation by Kara’s very own sister, and there were whispers of Lena living out in the far reaches. They would’ve been scouring the countryside all night, trying to find her bewitched home if they were under the assumption that Kara had been ensnared by her and was in danger. Which begged the question; why weren’t they there?

 

            Even if they made it into the forest, the layers of spellwork would keep them as dizzy and confounded as Kara had been the day before, walking in circles until they dropped with exhaustion and Lena could oust them or leave their corpses to feed the trees, but no one moved within her woods. No living creatures save her and Kara, and the tiny insects that fed the trees, the flaming life of their souls so tiny that they didn’t register as a blip on her feelers.

 

            “It’s safe,” Lena declared, her voice gravelly and thick with emotion.

 

            Despite the fact she knew it was what was best, she was reluctant to let go. It had been years since she’d had someone who made her feel as alive, as curious and amused as Kara did, and while she revelled in her loneliness, Lena knew she’d miss her terribly. It would eat away at her, the hole of delight at Kara’s infrequent visits, and Lena hated how attached to her she’d grown so quickly. That was the caveat of being alone for so long; when someone came into her life, she struggled to let them go again. This time, she had to for her own self-preservation, as well as Kara’s.

 

            Stifling the part of her that wanted to assure Kara that she could come back soon, maybe in a few months, when the shadow of suspicion had been cast off them, when no one even remembered the night she’d been missing and her sister didn’t track her every movement with the sharp gaze of distrust, wondering where she was, Lena looked down at the ground, a burning feeling in her throat as she stepped aside to let Kara through.

 

            Brushing past, minding her sword as her arm gently grazed Lena’s, Kara stepped outside, the air chilled beneath the boughs of the trees shading the cottage, their trunks ringing the place like unmoving sentinels. Kara was sure of Lena’s safety, whether it be the old trees, the power of her magic rife in her veins, or simply the fact that she would lie to within an inch of her life to protect the witch she had so endangered with her inability to stay away from. She should never have come back to apologise, never have come to cut her head off in the first place. Kara had been in too deep from the very beginning, outmatched in every way compared to Lena.

 

            “I’m sorry,” Kara said, quiet and trembling, “I should never have come here. Not the first time or any time since.”

 

            “I’m glad you did. Even if only to know that there’s one person out there who doesn’t think badly of me. At least … I hope you don’t.”

 

            Letting out a strained laugh as she blinked rapidly, Kara shifted from foot to foot for a moment, scuffing up the earth as she prolonged the moment, struggling to find the words. Eventually, she sighed and looked up at Lena, a sadness to her face as she cocked her head to the side and deflated.

 

            “Of course I don’t. I- I was wrong. I hope you know that I-”

 

            “I do,” Lena murmured, light and gentle, “and I forgive you.”

 

            Genuine tears pricked Kara’s eyes then as she nodded, her mouth a grim line of acceptance as pain burrowed into her chest. Taking them both by surprise, she lunged forward and wrapped Lena in a tight hug, so tight that she thought she might snap the witch’s ribs with the force of her embrace. Breathing in the earthy smell, the sweetness of plants and richness of soil and moss and the faint tang of magic and sweat, Kara closed her eyes and let her body memorise the way it held Lena’s, those bony shoulders and arms that were slow to return the hug, wary of such contact. She could feel the stiffness to Lena’s muscles and movements, the uneasiness fading away as she relented, sinking into Kara and then almost sagging with the raw sorrow of the goodbye.

 

            “I hope you’re happy,” Kara murmured into her hair, cradling the back of her head for a moment as her chest trembled, the pent up pressure wavering inside her as she held it in. “I hope you live a long and happy life.”

 

            “And you,” Lena said, drawing back and giving her a wan smile.

 

            She reached up and gently touched Kara’s cheek, her touch cold and gentle as her eyes creased slightly at the corners. Her lips were as chapped as the day they first met, on a bitter winter’s day a few miles from the beach as rain lashed their skin and snow covered the countryside. Kara had kissed her that night, after she’d saved Alex’s life. Had fit her lips to Lena’s and felt their weather-worn roughness and felt her burrow into her heart like ivy creeping in and taking root. This time, there would be no kiss, no comfort in that, only the absence of her, a bleeding hole that she’d so keenly feel.

 

            “Take them,” Kara found herself murmuring as Lena’s touch vanished, the air cold against her cheek.

 

            “What?”

 

            “My memories,” Kara said, licking her lips and drawing in a shaky breath, “take them. I permitted you yesterday; now I’m asking.”

 

            Flinching back slightly, Lena’s forehead crumpled with a look of panic as she stared at Kara with wide eyes. Shaking her head, she opened and closed her mouth a few times, before giving her a pleading look.

 

            “I’m sorry … I can’t do that.”

           

            “It’s safer for you,” Kara argued, “please. I couldn’t bear it if you got hurt because of me. I would try my best not to tell them, of course, but …”

 

            “Your sister wouldn’t hurt you,” Lena said with more conviction than she felt.

 

            Shoulders rising in a small shrug, Kara gave her a cringing smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes, “I know, but someone else would. It’ll be okay.”

 

            “You said … if I did this, you’d miss me. That your heart would … ache for me every day, even if it didn’t know why. I don’t want to do that to you. I don’t want- I don’t want you to forget me. I can bear the loneliness, the missing you. I can . But … not the thought of never existing to you.”

 

            “But what if you get hurt?”

 

            With a faint smile, Lena’s eyes shuttered. “I can take care of myself, Kara. I could raze the town and bring terrors the likes of which the people have never seen. You were right to be wary of me, for the power I hold. I could bring the stuff of nightmares to life and endless torture to anyone who crossed me. The only thing holding me back is my humanity, my morals. It’s a fine line to walk, to know what force to use to protect oneself and what is evil and wrong. I would rather not walk it, but if the time comes, I will do what I must … and no more than that, you have my word. I’m not in the business of death and destruction. I just want them to leave me be, and I think that will come at a small price. But know that I can look after myself.”

 

            “Then why-”

 

            Lena cut her off, seeing the desperation and confusion clouding Kara’s eyes as she tried to object, and reached out to gently touch her cheek again, a fleeting moment to feel the warmth of someone else. Those chances were few and far between, left to the coven meetings that happened on major holidays only to perform the rituals. It was usually the only time Lena came across other living souls, the only time she touched someone else and didn’t feel like she was such a monster as they worshipped the goddesses together, loneliness banished in those moments of unity. How she wished she could feel like that all the time.

 

            “It’s to protect you . You’re caught in the middle of this, between a rock and a hard place, and I would see you freed before harm is brought upon you because of me. But … know that I’ll miss you too, that my heart will ache as well. And that I’ll cherish those moments of light you brought me.”

 

            They looked at each other in silence for a long moment, mournful resignation in Kara’s tearful eyes, firm resolution in Lena’s green ones, neither of them wanting to say goodbye as the moment drew near.

 

            “You should go,” Lena eventually whispered, averting her gaze, “they’ll be here soon; they should’ve already been here. It’s best if you’re not around when they come.”

 

            Slowly nodding, the movement stiff and jerky as if Kara had no control of her body, she withdrew a few steps, her eyes trained on Lena’s face. Lena who didn’t look at her again, who couldn’t bear the sight of her face disappearing into the shadows of the trees, never to be seen again. And so Kara left, each step slow and measured as she withdrew, like she’d stumbled upon a wild animal and was trying to sneak away before it attacked, yet each step broke her heart a little bit more, and that obliterated everything else.

 

            Once she’s passed into the shade of the trees, tripping over creeping roots and fumbling behind her for any trunks she was about to walk right into, Kara took her last glimpse of Lena and then turned, staggering a few steps forward before the facade completely crumbled away into nothing. Exposed and vulnerable, Kara let out a choking sob as she lurched along, her body aching everywhere from the day before, and the new ache in her chest competing with her muscles, and her cheeks burned with embarrassment at how much it hurt.

 

            They hadn’t really known each other that long or all that well, in the grand scheme of things. The first time they’d met, Kara had been trying to kill her, and while things had moved quickly, the two of them falling into a sense of timeless friendship beneath the boughs of the trees, Kara had quickly torn that up. And now that it was fixed, things had ended to protect her from what Alex might do if she found out Kara had been consorting with a known witch. It shouldn’t have been so painful to leave behind someone she’d met a handful of times, but those times had stretched across hours, nearly whole days spent talking and wandering beneath the trees. There was a part of Kara that felt more known to Lena than to anyone else, the witch so used to being judged that she didn’t dare shun others for their own shortcomings. 

           

            As she tramped through the undergrowth, ferns brushing against her shins and low-hanging branches scratching at her cheeks, Kara found her vision blurred by tears that sprang unbidden to her eyes. Frustration at herself, at her softness, made her angry shoulder through the trees and up the inclines. She fell more than once, hands smarting and clothes impossibly dirtier, breathing ragged and jaw painfully clenched as she quickly tried to leave the forest behind. There was the sensation of being watched, the thickness of the damp air making it hard for her to breathe as a heaviness pressed in on her chest.

 

            Tumbling out of the forest like she’d been ousted from it, Kara paused for a moment, warm air and bright sunshine making her feel stuffy in her coat, she shed it and pushed up her sleeves, drawing in shallow, ragged breaths as she tried to get her emotions under control. Shading her eyes against the sun as she managed to slow her breathing, Kara stared out at the green fields unfurling before her like a green carpet, spreading in every direction she could see, from the fain bumps of the town so far away, to the foothills of the mountains, their gentle slopes coming down to meet the rolling hills blanketed in greenery and summer flowers. It was too beautiful for a day of heartbreak.

 

            Setting off for home, feet dragging as she trampled dandelions and weeds underfoot, Kara couldn’t bring herself to enjoy it, plodding along as she sweated through her shirt and fought back breathless sobs. Drinking from the river, she had to will herself not to throw herself back into the water as she had last time, lest she catch another chill, but she took some time to sit on the riverbank and soak her feet in the cool current as it was towed along, unaware of her suffering.

 

            It was well into the afternoon as she finished her trek home, kicking up dust on the well-beaten dirt track leading to the gates of the sprawling town, and Kara looked at it with resentment. Dirty grey stone walls, monstrously tall and imposing. An ugly sight to be greeted with, keeping out the sunlight and the freshness of nature. Stepping through them was even worse, and she rankled at the guards with their puffed out chests and useless armour, keen-eyed and suspicious as they looked at everyone who entered, not knowing that a witch would tear them to pieces if she so wished. 

 

            And then she was confined within the walls, deep shadows plunging the narrow streets into darkness, despite the cloudless blue sky overhead as the sun still hung fairly high in the sky. The halo of warmth was blotted out by the rows of tall houses, built almost on top of each other, reeking of sweat and waste and rotting garbage. Smoggy fires from forges and manure from stabled inns, sour beer and tanning hides, people tossing buckets of brown water from their windows into overflowing gutters crawling with soaked rats nosing through the pockets of drunks passed out in the mouths of alleys.

 

            Resentful and exhausted, Kara walked through the streets with her coat slung over one shoulder and her hand on the hilt of her sword, staring at the thriving town with unseeing eyes as she passed shopfronts and beneath colourful awnings, through the ramshackle slums skirting the edges, through to the more respectable parts of town. The tall, sprawling palace stood like a beacon of purity in the middle, near the open market square, hewn from white stone with flags flying from the towers. The royal family all lay behind their guarded walls, promising sanctuary from the monsters that lay beyond the defences of the town, with their Witch Hunters and the garrison of soldiers lying in wait to capture some poor girl and wrongfully send her to her death. They’d gotten it all twisted. 

 

            Witches weren’t the monsters, the real ones lived inside the walls, feeding off of the fear-mongering and panic with empty promises of safety and retribution. They burned innocent people at least once a month, and the occupants of the town cheered them on, the King watching over the proceedings with the Queen and Prince beside him, the people screaming their praises as another terrified girl was turned to ashes. And all the while, they did nothing to actually make the land safer, with the real witches tucked away, minding their own business as they fed off the land and kept to themselves.

 

            The whispers of Lena living out past the hills were widespread and known, and it made the whole charade of Witch Hunters that more ridiculous, that they knew of her, knew her relative location, and still hadn’t caught it. In their bones, they knew that a real witch would eat them alive, tear them limb from limb, and they were too cowardly to do the job they were hired to do. Instead, they lied, or made superstitions into facts, her sister wheedling out false confessions and condemning innocents. 

 

            Kara stewed in her anger as she walked home, taut and aching to lash out at something, at someone, yet brimming with fear at the trouble she’d be in once she stepped through the front door. No doubt Alex would explode, unloading her anger and worries onto Kara’s reckless behaviour the moment Kara managed to cobble together some half-hearted story about being waylaid on the trip home, robbed by some brigands or held up on some lover’s tryst a few villages over. Anything to keep the blame from being cast upon Lena.

 

            As she neared the house tightly wedged in alongside the others on the street, relatively clean in comparison to other sectors of the city with the neat window boxes of plants and swept streets, the smell of perfume stores and leather from the cobblers, flowers from the florists and fresh produce from the grocers, Kara felt her simmering anger gutter at the normalcy of it all, no soldiers or Witch Hunters pushing through the peaceful crowd as they went about their day. It was mundane and sad that people could go on living without any qualms about the way they were caged in to live with the monsters, thinking that the wolves lay outside the walls.

 

            Fishing out the iron key as she stopped at the front door to her family’s home, Kara tense for the onslaught of questions and accusations, her sister’s occupation bleeding over into the confines of the house as she interrogated Kara for answers, her worry evident on her face. Fiercely protective, and more than a little overbearing at times, Kara knew Alex meant well and would defend her from anything or anyone. Yet, today, she felt a prickle of annoyance towards her sister, unfamiliar and unwelcome as Kara’s stomach tied itself into knots as the door creaked open.

 

            Stepping inside, Kara breathed in the lingering odour of smoke and the smell of the lemony soap from the laundry, accompanied by the sound of sloshing water and quiet humming. Shutting the door behind her, Kara stepped further into the small space and saw the hunched image of Eliza sitting before the empty fireplace as she scrubbed dirty clothes against a washboard, blonde hair hidden beneath a scarf and the sleeves of her cotton blouse pushed up past her elbows as the frothy water splashed around her hands.

 

            “Ah! You’re home at last!”

 

            “Hi,” Kara slowly said, apprehensive and cautious as she lingered in the shadows of the shut door, hanging her coat up on a hook and unbuckling the leaden weight of the sword to rest it against the wall.

 

            “There’s fresh bread and some cuts of pork in the larder. Cheese as well, if you’re hungry. I imagine it was a long walk.”

 

            Struggling to keep her expressions under control, Kara opened and closed her mouth as she stepped into the room, light highlighting the mess of her clothes. “Walk? Yeah, it was-”

 

            “Oh! Look at the state of you!” Eliza crowed, slapped a sodden pair of pants against the washboard she gave Kara a grim look. “What kind of errands does that printer have you doing for him?”

 

            “Errands?”

 

            “I don’t know what plant is so important that it keeps you out all night and returning looking like you’ve been dragged through a bush backwards, but tell J’onn from me that he better be paying you enough to cover the cost of a new wardrobe if this happens again. I mean, look at the holes in this shirt!”

 

            Eliza clucked her tongue and shook her head, her mouth an exasperated line as she griped about the grass stains and the holes torn into the thin cotton of Kara’s shirt by branches and brambled. With a slow, uneasy laugh, Kara raked a hand through her dirty hair and gave her mother a forced smile.

 

            “I’ll let home know. I, uh, I actually need to- to go and give him the flowers. I’m just going to wash up … first.”

 

            There was a cautious look on Kara’s face that went unnoticed as she backed out of the room, her stomach clenching with nerves as she found herself ill at ease by the lack of concern for her overnight disappearance. J’onn had covered for her, apparently, but that still left Kara on edge.

 

            “Well, bring your clothes down to me when you’re finished. I’ll scrub them clean and see what I can do about mending them. I’ll have to take them into the store with me tomorrow.”

 

            “Okay, thanks,” Kara called over her shoulder as she hit the bottom step, mounting it and then pausing. “Is Alex around?”

 

            “She’s gone to the tavern,” Eliza called out, “she’s with Winn and James, I think. She said if you were back early enough, you should join them.”

 

            Cocking her head to the side as she mulled over the information, Kara gripped the bannister in her white-knuckled hand, tense and frozen on the bottom step as she tried to unravel some deeper meaning in the message. Did Alex know? Was she luring Kara to the tavern to scare her away from Lena before she dug herself into deeper trouble? Surely not with Winn there; he was the most non-threatening person ever, and James was a gentle giant. The invitation seemed innocuous and Kara let out a breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding.

 

            “Okay, thanks.”

 

            Taking the stairs two at a time, her boots thudding loudly on the wooden floorboards, Kara let herself into her small room and shut the door, falling back against it and pressing a hand to her pounding heart. Her clothes clung to her in a sorry sight, ragged and soiled, and she kicked her boots off and quickly shed her clothes, before moving over to the washbasin and pitcher of cool water.

 

            Filling the basin, she dipped in a clean cloth and lathered up a bar of soap, before setting about washing the grime off her skin. Goosebumps rippled across her skin as cold water trickled down her back, but it was refreshing. Scrubbing away the layer of sweat and dirt and the sweet, lingering odour of herbs from Lena’s care, Kara felt marginally better as she scrubbed at her hands, splashing the water around. Working dirt out of the creases of her palms and out from under her fingernails, she was distracted enough to let her idle mind wander to thoughts of Lena and paused.

 

            Gripping the edge of the basin, her face crumpled with sorrow as she hunched her shoulders and ducked her head, water drying on her skin as droplets rained down from the sodden rag she’d clenched tightly in her hand. She wondered how she was doing, if she felt the absence of Kara as keenly as she felt the absence of her, if perhaps she’d dropped the stoic mask and cried a little bit, let herself feel the sadness, or if she’d known this day was coming from the very beginning. It had been inevitable in a way; there was no world where Kara could see Lena living in the town with her, or her escaping to the forest without her family’s knowledge.

 

            With a sigh, she dumped the cloth into the greyish water and dried herself off with a towel, before donning a clean set of clothes. The faded sapphire of the shirt made her look pale and drawn with exhaustion, her eyes ringed with dark circles and the small nicks and cuts on her face standing out. Her pants were all currently being laundered downstairs so she donned one of the skirts that fell to her calf, a deep navy with flowers embroidered by Eliza around the hem. Running a comb through her damp hair and pulling it back into something more presentable, Kara quickly shoved her feet back into her boots and opened the door, scooping up her discarded clothes on the way out.

 

            Handing them off to Eliza with a sheepish look on her face, Kara grabbed her baggy overcoat from the hook, thumbing the key in the pocket, and gave her mother a thin smile. “I’ll be back soon.”

 

            “You’re not going to the tavern?”

 

            “I’m tired,” Kara said, giving her a flash of a smile, “I think I’ll just come back and have an early night.”

 

            “Okay. Don’t go beyond the wall; it’s not safe.”

 

            Heart aching, Kara nodded as she looked at Eliza and saw the worry in her eyes. “I won’t.”

 

            Stepping out into the dusk that had fallen since she’d stepped inside, the sky a slate blue streaked with indigo, a slight chill to the narrow streets of the town as they blocked out any lingering warmth the sun may have offered throughout the day, Kara shut the door behind her and paused. The faded smear of Lena’s blood was still there protecting them and she felt another ache in her chest, even as she smiled and grazed her fingers over it in a tender manner.

 

            Shoulders stooped and her mind preoccupied, she made the walk towards the print shop with a heaviness in her chest and nervousness twisting her stomach into knots. The feeling only increased as she grew closer until Kara felt like her insides had been hollowed out and filled with butterflies as they brushed the insides with their delicate wings. Her hands trembled as she balled them into fists in her coat pockets, missing the familiar touch of her old compass, now forever lost to the woods, her mouth dry with fear as the shopfront came into view.

 

            A light was still on inside, the faint amber glow visible through the warped windows, and Kara let herself in, the bell above the door chiming merrily as she cautiously stepped inside. J’onn never locked up until he retired to his home upstairs, and she knew he’d be at the back of the shop, behind the polished counter dividing the open space, where the massive press stood and he stitched away, binding their newest books to add them to the tightly-packed shelves out the front. 

 

            “Hello?” his deep voice rang out, and Kara felt her muscles clench as she locked the door and stepped further inside.

 

            She heard the sound of chair legs scraping on the wooden floorboards as J’onn climbed to his feet, and Kara let out a faint sigh before she squared her shoulders. “It’s me.”

 

            Walking past rows and tables of shelves, Kara eased up the hinged hatch of the counter to step beyond it. At his desk behind the press, J’onn had settled himself back down and held a stack of partially bound pages in his hand with a threaded needle, halfway through a new book. He cast her a long look as Kara stood there with a guilty look on her face, her every emotion written plainly for him to see.

 

            “Why don’t you sit down?” J’onn said, gesturing with the needle to the straight-backed chair set across the desk from him.

 

            “I’m fine here,” Kara murmured, lingering back as her skin prickled with anticipation of an attack. Not from J’onn - she had no concerns about him attacking her, in fact, she couldn’t remember him ever so much as raising his voice at her in her years of employment - yet the thought of a Witch Hunter or soldier popping out from some hidden spot kept her on edge.

 

            They stared at each other as they lapsed into silence, both of them waiting for the other to speak. Restless and fidgety, Kara broke first, her shoulders dropping as she wilted and gave J’onn a mystified look.

 

            “Why’d you lie to Alex for me?”

 

            “Because,” he said, turning his attention back to his work and pushing the needle through the thick parchment pages, “I got your letter.”

 

            “Letter?” Kara blurted out, forehead creasing, “what letter?”

 

            Reaching out without looking, J’onn picked up a folded piece of parchment and held it up, “this letter.”

 

            Unable to help herself, Kara crossed the space between them and snatched the letter from his hand, before retreating a few steps to read it in the glow of an oil lamp. It was written in her hand, down to the way she crossed her t’s, and yet Kara had never written the letter.

 

            J’onn. Found the flowers for the ink. It took longer than expected so I’m spending the night at a nearby inn. Will be back tomorrow. Kara.

 

            “I didn’t write this,” Kara slowly said, a wariness in her eyes as she looked over at her boss.

 

            Setting the pages and the needle down, J’onn leant back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest. He looked at her with thinly veiled amusement, dark eyes glittering as a smile tugged at his lips.

 

            “Of course you didn’t; I did.”

 

            “But … how did you- why? You didn’t know where I was. If I was safe.”

 

            He let out a quiet chuckle, flashing a white smile as he shook his head, “oh, I did . I smelled her magic on you months ago. If you were in danger, it wasn’t because of the witch.”

 

            Paling, Kara opened and closed her mouth, nausea churning her stomach as she let out a breathless gasp like she’d been kicked in the stomach. Shaking her head, she looked at J’onn with wide eyes, unable to bring herself to speak.

 

            “There’s no point denying it,” he said, calm and nonchalant, “no one else will have noticed, but like calls to like.”

 

            “What?” Kara finally managed to get out, the word strained and fraught with panic.

 

            Her breathing turned shallow as she scrunched the letter in her hand, staring at the man seated behind the desk with renewed panic. There was an unlit candle on the table, far away from the collection of books yet still scarcely lit out of fear of a spark setting the whole place ablaze. And yet, as she stood rooted to the spot, Kara watched as J’onn sparked a crimson flame on his index finger and touched it to the candle, which lit with a sputtering hiss and filled the place with the smell of wax.

 

            “You’re a- a-”

 

            “A warlock,” he said, eyeing her with intense scrutiny. “You’re not afraid.”

 

            Her laugh of disbelief verged on hysterical as Kara cupped the back of her head and tipped it back, looking up at the rafters as she blew all the air out of her lungs and tried to ground herself as her mind reeled. J’onn had magic. The man she’d worked for for years , who bound ordinary books on history and plays and geography, who submitted himself to raids without so much as a qualm about anything magical being found in his shop. He was respectable in the town, one of a few bookmakers with a printing press, his shop in the merchant quarter neat and tidy and, while not quite luxurious, comfortable and modest. To think that he had magic made Kara doubt everything she’d ever known. She’d just as easily believe Eliza did, or Winn.

 

            “No, I’m not afraid,” she said with another laugh, giving J’onn an incredulous look as she carefully crossed the space and took a seat across from him, so many questions burning on her tongue.

 

            Opening a desk drawer, J’onn pulled out a flask and held it out to her, a flicker of mirth in his eyes as she took it and uncorked it. The brandy was like fire as she choked it down and handed it back, running her hand across her mouth and then running her hands over the thighs of her skirt as she shook her head.

 

            “I don’t understand. How?”

 

            “The Witch Hunters look for women. It’s easy to evade suspicion when it’s not cast upon you,” J’onn said with a slight grimace, “it makes it easy to dwell within the town when no one suspected me.” 

 

            “Why risk it anyway?”

 

            “I stay so I can try my best to free the women held captive in the palace dungeons as often as I can. They’re all innocent. Rarely is a real witch burned at the stake. And the only one I know of in the area is the one you’ve been sneaking off to meet. Tell me; how did you meet her?”

 

            Cheeks flushing red with embarrassment, Kara cleared her throat and jerked her chin forward slightly, “Alex was sick last winter. Prince Mon-El said he’d marry whoever killed the witch, so I thought- well, if I killed her I could command the best healers for my sister. I went out to the cliffs … I didn’t know where to look for her but there she was. And I tried- I tried for Alex, but I couldn’t do it. And she healed her anyway. Came all the way back with me to save her life. That’s when I realised … we’ve got it all wrong.”

 

            “Indeed.”

 

            “I thought- she did something and I thought she was wrong, but … I was. I went to see her yesterday and apologise but there was this whole thing with a tree. It’s a long story. Anyway, I passed out so I was stuck there overnight, and I - we - thought that Alex might’ve sent the Hunters out looking for me. I didn’t know about your letter. I didn’t know that we-”

 

            “What?”

 

            Looking down at her lap, Kara chewed on the inside of her lip as she stewed for a moment, fighting back the feeling that rose in her throat and threatened to choke her up as she replied. “She said it’s too dangerous for us to keep seeing each other. That I’ll get hurt if- if they find out.”

 

            Tilting his head to the side, J’onn deliberated for a moment, lips pursed. “She’s right. That would be the case … but no one has found out yet. And your secret is safe with me. As I’m sure mine is safe with you.”

 

            A sad smile curved her lips as she looked up at him and closed her eyes for a moment, exhaling softly. “Of course it is. But … why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

 

            “It’s always best to keep secrets a secret until you need to divulge it, in my experience. No need to needlessly endanger you until it was necessary for you to know.”

 

            She hummed in response, cheeks dimpling as she grimaced. “Well, thank you - for covering for me with Alex, I mean.”

 

            Waving a hand dismissively, J’onn gave her a stern look, “pay it no mind. I’m just glad you’ve been getting out of this shop a bit more. I have half a mind to get some air beyond the walls myself. It’ll do us both some good.”

 

            “Well … I won’t be going back to see her again.”

 

            “Why not?”

 

            “Because it’s all just-” Kara cut off with a heavy sigh, her shoulders slumping with defeat as she ran a hand over her face and gave J’onn a mournful look. “It’s pointless, isn’t it? What good can come of it? She lives out there, I live in here. My sister wants her dead . They would put me on a pyre beside her if they knew.”

 

            Leaning back in his chair, work abandoned, J’onn laced his hands behind his head and listened, a pensive look on his solemn face as he listened to all of the despondent excuses Kara gave him. It was a long list of reasons, of half-hearted inconveniences that made her slump lower and lower in her seat until her chin was nearly touching her chest as she glumly vented her frustrations and sadness, reaching for the flask halfway through and taking intermittent sips of brandy in between. Her eyes were glassy with a film of tears by the time she finished, both of them lapsing into silence as the candle painted them both in its red glow, unusual and eerie as the stifling quietness of the shop made them feel worlds apart from the streets outside.

 

            “Your sister need never know where you are. As long as you tell me when you’re off visiting her, I can cover for you. It’s a trifling matter.”

 

            “But-”

 

            J’onn held a hand up to cut her off, giving her a crooked smile as he straightened up in his seat, “and as for danger, you could be dragged from my shop on any normal day under charges of witchcraft. You are in no more danger for secretly visiting her than you are ordinarily, as long as you’re discreet and keep quiet about where you’re going. Again, I can help with that, my friend. It’s not so hard to lie and say you’re off picking rare plants that only bloom in summer, or autumn, or even venturing out in the colder months to trade a few towns over. The lies are innumerable and inconsequential if you truly desire to see her.”

 

            “And what about her? If something were to happen and we were found out? She says she can handle herself-”

 

            His expression darkened slightly, a graveness to it that Kara rarely saw. “I don’t doubt it. Her family are well-known in the coven. Very powerful members. She would know spells that could split our town from the mainland and sink us in the depths of the sea if she wished to cause us harm. I’ve been acquainted with Lena for more years than you can know, have seen her at every ritual and celebration since she was a child.”

 

            Kara tried to mask her surprise at the fact that J’onn knew her name, and at that moment, she knew she really could trust him. While names weren’t the surest way to lay claim to someone, to cause them harm, as Lena had taught her on their first meeting, there was something intimate about a name, and she knew that only people who knew Lena well enough to have seen her frequently over the years would know it. A warlock who attended the same gatherings surely qualified as someone who both women could trust to help them.

 

            “I don’t know,” Kara murmured, her forehead creasing with a troubled look as she found herself conflicted. 

 

            It would be selfish of her to risk Lena’s home and peace for her own benefit, but at the same time, Lena didn’t seem to want to say goodbye anymore than she had. If there was a chance, shouldn’t she go to her and let her know?

 

            “Maybe it’s better to put a stop to it now.”

 

            “Maybe it is. That’s your prerogative,” J’onn said, his voice an indifferent rumble as he extinguished the candle with a click of his fingers and stowed the flask away before climbing to his feet before he gave Kara a piercing stare. “But there are some things in this world worth fighting for, and if you think it’s worth it too, you fight tooth and nail and damn the consequences. Don’t let others be the creators of your own unhappiness; you can’t live for them, only yourself.”

Chapter Text

            Everything was seemingly normal at home, much to Kara’s uneasy surprise. There were no suspicious questions off Alex, no doubts about where she’d been or what she’d been doing. Her sister never even considered the fact that Kara had been off consorting with a witch, even if it had been for the last time. And neither did Eliza or any of their friends. Only J’onn knew the truth and he had as much to lose as Kara if the truth got out. Kara guarded J’onn’s secret with the same solemn care as Lena’s secret.

 

            Work had become a sort of haven for her now though, with someone Kara could voice her concerns to without having to implicate herself in anything that could see her burn for it. It didn’t make her fear abate, but it was a weight off her shoulders to know that J’onn was there to talk to. She imagined he felt the same, after years of running the printing store, subjecting himself to raids by the local garrison, he seemed more forthcoming with little tidbits of information about himself now that she knew.

 

            The two of them went about work as usual, with Kara arranging letters together in words, sentences, paragraphs, ready for printing, while J’onn edited the manuscripts at his desk and bound the new books. They were silent or turned to safe, innocuous topics of conversation wherever there was a customer in the store, browsing the shelves of titles available. And in the time between, J’onn gave her a knowing look, pointed and stern.

 

            “You should go and see her.”

 

            “It’s not safe.”

 

            The weeks passed by, summer in full swing with blue skies and her days off spent lounging in the town square, reading as she dipped her feet in the fountain, eating fresh apricots as she soaked up the sunshine and her hair turned to spun gold. And still, she didn’t leave the confines of the town.

 

            “Go and see her.”

 

            “I can’t. It’s … bad timing. I’ve got to finish this manuscript.”

 

            With a wave of his hand, J’onn made the letters quickly arrange themselves in order for printing as Kara’s mouth fell open in surprise. A fortnight’s work had been done for her with the wave of a hand, and with her day’s pay in hand, she was turned out onto the streets with the encouragement of a Warlock invested in her happiness. 

 

            Kara ventured as far as beyond the town walls, taking in the spread of green pastures and golden waves of wheat, breathing the fresh air laced with the sweetness of flowers, in stark contrast to the stifling, putrid stink of the narrow streets and the tall walls blotting out all but the narrowest glimpses of cerulean overhead. It was nice to be free of the walls, but she made no move to travel further, to cross the winding river and follow the worn dirt road away to the foothills of the mountains.

 

            “Did you go and see her?”

 

            “I’ll go soon.”

 

            Soon didn’t come for a long while, weeks passing until summer was on the cusp of turning, a touch of yellow to the trees, a chill to the early morning air and steel grey skies. As the weather started to grow colder and farmers harvested their crops, Kara’s mind turned to Lena and to the coming months. She’d be able to scrape by through the autumn months, foraging for hardy root vegetables and small creatures out hoarding for the winter. Autumn wouldn’t bother Lena, beneath the eaves of her trees as they changed from yellow to red to brown, needles drying and blanketing last year’s rotting foliage. She would revel in the peace, in the changing of the seasons, perhaps venturing off for one of her coven celebrations. But the winter would be hard.

 

            Kara couldn’t help but worry. The first time they’d met, Lena’s wares had been running low, her lips chapped from the bitter cold as a frost swept through the land, snow from the mountains drifting down and covering the region from coast to foothills, even reaching down into the witch’s valley. Her threadbare cloak hadn’t been much of a protection then, without the aid of her magic, and Lena’s supplies had grown stretched out and meagre towards the end of the winter.

 

            Despite weeks of telling herself it was none of her business, that Lena’s life was her own and separate from Kara’s, that they’d agreed to goodbye and she’d stick by it, Kara found her resolve weakening. Every day, she thought of Lena. She didn’t pine as she had when they’d left things badly, but it didn’t lessen the ache in her heart as she spent her nights restlessly tossing and turning as she worried for her. 

 

            And still, Kara remained stoic in her determination to stay away, despite J’onn’s gentle prompting and the overwhelming part of her that missed Lena. She never imagined something as simple as walking through the trees with quiet company would be a cause for pining, something she ached to do more than anything else. Lena was in everything she saw, in her every thought, from the perturbed feelings over the laden breakfast shared with her family, in the books she tried and failed to lose herself in, in the flowers she struggled to identify or in the thin faces of street children huddling in alleys, gaunt with hunger and starved for attention. 

 

            She even saw her in her dreams, and yet Kara still couldn’t pluck up the courage to go. The thought of making the trek all the way out to the valley only to face rejection, because Lena undoubtedly hadn’t budged on her decision to reconcile with Kara, to throw caution to the wind, made Kara feel sick. Perhaps it was the cowardly way to handle her emotions, to run away and avoid confronting them, but the last time she’d tried to right her mistakes it had led to their farewell. Trying again would just be like adding salt to the wound, futile and painful.

 

            “You’ve been especially mopey lately,” Alex noted one moment, lacing on her boots in between mouthfuls of porridge as she gave Kara a shrewd look. “Is everything okay?”

 

            Rubbing at her tired eyes, Kara shrugged nonchalantly with a thin smile. Dismissing her sister’s words with an airy wave of her hand, she scooped up a spoonful of her own porridge and cleared her throat.

 

            “I- yeah, of course. I’ve just … been busy with work. Binding books is long work. Surprisingly tiring. I think perhaps I just need a day off.”

 

            “You should take a day. Visit the sea before the weather fully turns,” Eliza interrupted, stitching a hole closed in one of Alex’s shirts.

 

            “Mm, the air will do you good,” Alex agreed, “and it might be the last time you can go without risking catching a chill. Surely J’onn will allow you one day. You spend too much time in there as it is.”

 

            Rolling her eyes as she swallowed her mouthful, Kara smiled sheepishly. “I like working. What else am I going to do with so many days off? Join in with the drunkards?”

 

            Gently kicking her under the table, Alex gave her a sharp smile, “hey, us drunkards would love it if you graced us with your presence at the tavern more often. Honestly, Kara, having your nose in a book all the time isn’t good for you.”

 

            Wrinkling her nose, Kara’s eyes crinkled even as the faint smile didn’t reach them, “well, that’s a lie, but sorry, there are only so many tales of heroics from your legion of hunters that I can stomach at a time.”

 

            She suppressed a shiver at the prickling unease of nails scratching over her skin that the memory of such tales elicited, evoking feelings of dread and horror at the stories that she recalled from the mouths of Alex’s coworkers and even some of their mutual friends. Only Winn, as soft and meek as he was, didn’t deign to include his own anecdotes about devilish witches he’d helped dismember for the cause, and only because he didn’t have any to contribute. 

 

            “Oh, lighten up, will you? You know they’re all just showing off with lies. Besides, even if they aren’t, what’s one less witch in the world, hm?”

 

            “I only wish they’d catch that one that wanders the hills,” Eliza darkly said, snapping the thread and shaking out the shirt before folding it neatly over the back of a chair. “You two be careful if you go out to the cliffs, you hear me? Don’t go wandering off alone. Winter’s not far off and she’ll be out prowling. Remember what happened to the cobbler’s son five winters back?”

 

            “I thought he just got lost and froze to death,” Kara said, trying to keep her tone neutral even as frustration welled up inside her, and a stab of fear at the thought of Lena being captured. The urge to go to her and warn her seized Kara.

 

            With a quiet scoff, her mother arched an eyebrow and gently placed a hand on Kara’s shoulder, a tense worry to the set of her mouth. “They said his heart was gone from his chest, the snow painted red beneath him.”

 

            “Well, I think that it’s just an exaggeration. I mean … witches don’t actually eat people, do they? Or there’d be a lot less of us.”

 

            There was a tense silence in the kitchen, two pairs of eyes drilling into Kara, who stiffened slightly in her seat. Letting out an uneasy laugh as a flush crept up her neck, Kara took a sip of water and shifted uneasily.

 

            “All I’m saying is … do we really know much about them? I mean … they get brought in and killed before we can even learn much about them so …”

 

            “There’s not much time for questions,” Alex brusquely answered, a sharpness to her words, her shoulders taut beneath her shirt as she abruptly climbed to her feet. “We get so much as a confirmation and then it’s safest to take them out. As quickly as possible. There’s not much time for a tea party.”

 

            Sighing, Kara deflated in her seat, “that’s not what I-”

 

            “You shouldn’t speak like that, Kara,” Alex cut her off, a hardness to her brown eyes as she looked at her, peeved and worried too. “You never know who could be listening; people might take curiosity the wrong way.”

 

            “I know,” Kara muttered, ducking her head as a pucker formed between her eyebrows and a lump lodged itself in her throat. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

 

            “I know,” Alex softly assured her, giving her a thin smile as she dragged on her cloak. “Just … be careful. I can only protect you so far, and it endangers us all to speak like that.”

           

            “Got it.”

 

            The rest of her breakfast lay untouched on the table, and she quickly helped clean up before kissing Eliza on the cheek and heading to work. Burrowing into the warmth of her coat at the sharp coldness of the day, despite the bright sun peering through the streaks of clouds, Kara hurried through the maze of streets as she splashed through dirty brown puddles from early morning showers. The sight of the bookstore was a welcome one and she waved at the familiar face of the nearby baker before ducking inside.

 

            “Morning,” Kara called out, pulling her knapsack off her shoulder and over her head as she smiled at the figure at the back of the store, lingering in shadows and already hard at work.

 

            “Nice day today,” J’onn called out, “you should get out and get some fresh air.” 

 

            Kara gave him a stern look as she set her bag down and unbuttoned her coat, “I know what you’re doing.”

 

            “Of course you do,” he said with faint amusement, pushing the small glasses further up his nose as he adjusted the sheaths of paper set before him and picked up the threaded needle again. “I should think I’ll have to spell it out to you soon if you continue to feign ignorance.”

 

            “I’m not feigning ignorance,” Kara sighed, a grim cast to her mouth, “I just- I don’t think it’s a good idea. That’s all.”

 

            “They’ll not find you,” J’onn pressed, “even I don’t know where my kin lives. She roams the hills and plains at times, that’s all that’s known. You are the only person who could ever betray her here, and she would be safe from the flames anyway. Your caution only serves to distract you and cause you unnecessary pain.”

 

            Silently brooding, Kara reached out for the thick book holding the edited manuscript she’d been working on for the last two days, no customers in the store at that early hour. It lay open to a page, a page that looked different to the one she’d left off from the night before, and as her brow furrowed and her fingertips touched the page, it slammed shut. 

 

            Swallowing a yelp of surprise as she snatched her hand back quickly, Kara’s furrow turned into a frown as she looked at J’onn, who chuckled quietly. She could tell he enjoyed being able to rely on small spells in her presence know, and the trust instilled in her pleased Kara on any other day, but she wasn’t particularly grateful for his small display of magic just then, her fingertips tingling with the ghost of the heavy tome slamming shut on her hand.

 

            “I’ve already finished with your work for today,” J’onn said with a slight smile, dark eyes twinkling.

 

            “Well then … I’ll just tidy up the shelves.”

 

            “I cleaned them this morning.”

 

            “Inventory.”

 

            “You insisted on doing that last week.”

 

            “Well … I’ll wait for customers.”

 

            With a soft sigh, J’onn pulled the waxed thread through the hole in the spine of the papers and then set the needle down to fix her with a stern look. “Miss Danvers, there is no scenario I can foresee that would result in me being too busy to manage this shop by myself. I suspect we’ll only sell a few today; the last days of nice weather are too good of an opportunity to spend indoors reading.”

 

            “Perhaps they want to read outdoors,” Kara hesitantly argued.

 

            “Perhaps you would like to,” he said, climbing to his feet.

 

            He crossed through the counter to the front of the shop, outlined by the white sunlight outside, in contrast to the dim amber glow of lamps inside, and ran a finger along the spines of books until he found what he was looking for. Kara knew that J’onn could lay his hand on any volume in the store without resorting to the neatly catalogued system she kept for the shop’s use. Pulling out a thin plum coloured book, he smiled and stopped across the counter to hand it over to her.

 

            Drifting out of the shadowed back, Kara warily took it and found herself looking down at the plain, unassuming cover, before cracking it open. It was another book of poems - one she hadn’t read yet and didn’t remember helping print.

 

            “A gift,” J’onn said, his eyes creasing at the corners, “I think you’ll find it to your liking. Now, off with you.”

 

            Spluttering as she gripped the book in hand, Kara’s eyes tracked him as he walked back through the counters and returned to his desk.

 

            “You know, I’m beginning to wonder why you bothered hiring me if you could’ve done it all yourself, and why you still employ me now that I know you can do it all yourself.”

 

            Easing himself back down, J’onn flashed her a wide smile as he settled back into his seat. Rolling his shoulders and pushing his glasses back up his nose as he hunched back over, he spoke without looking at her.

 

            “Simple. There’s far too much work for me to be able to do by myself without magic. People would become suspicious; you are essentially a cover for me, whether you do your work or not. I admire your work ethic and you do an exemplary job. It is a trade you would do well in, should I ever leave this town for farther shores.”

 

            “Oh.”

 

            “Now, I’m not punishing you or making your position here obsolete. You’ve worked for weeks without a day’s break, so whether you go and see her or not, you’re not to step foot back in this store until nightfall. If you do not step foot back in this store by then, I’ll assume you’re away, on some errand for me that’s taken longer than expected, and will pass on such an excuse. So, don’t forget to come straight here upon your return - whenever that might be - so I can pass on the excuse I used on your charming sister. Getting our threads crossed wouldn’t be ideal.”

 

            “Why do you care so much?” Kara quietly asked, hesitation in her voice as she looked down at the book.

 

            The silence was heavy as it dragged on for a few seconds before J’onn gruffly cleared his throat and straightened up in his seat. Running a hand over his cropped hair he sighed heavily.

 

            “Sympathy from humans is not easily come by for our kind. We’re lonely creatures, shunned to the edges of society for our own safety, unless one wants to risk it for the simple pleasure of company, like myself. As a whole, we tend to keep to ourselves so as not to deny us the pleasure of using our power as it is meant to be used without risking our lives. And while there are some who do well for themselves, who live in small communes with other coven members, it’s still … lonely at times, to be confined with few people and little ability to roam and wander. I speak from my own experiences, of course.”

 

            He trailed off for a moment, head bowed and hands splayed on the wooden desk as he hid a grimace, a forlorn air of pity shrouding him.

 

            “And Lena … I’ve known her family since before she was born, and her since then, and she … she has long-suffered through the darkness of her family, fighting her own loneliness since before she was capable of living alone. If there is one in our coven who should not be denied the comfort of a companion to simply talk to from time to time … it’s her. I can’t say I know her well, or closely at all - only in passing these days - but it saddens me, all the same, to think of her living a life with few moments of connection with other people. And I’d hate for you to share a similar fate by denying yourself the pleasure of her company. She is bright and tender-hearted, as I’m sure you’ve found. You tempt fate with the danger of your friendship, but there is danger in her mere existence. It is not purely for your benefit that I urge you towards her, although it’s your choice.”

 

            “I just- I wish that more people would see the truth,” Kara whispered, her voice gravelly and thick as her face crumpled, “I wish they weren’t so blinded by stories.”

 

            “I wish that too,” J’onn gently agreed.

 

            They both lapsed into silence as a shadow seemed to descend on the printing shop before he cleared his throat and returned to his work, head bowed as Kara lingered.

 

            “Go on now. Enjoy the day as you please.”

 

            Picking up her bag, Kara slung it over one shoulder and bid him goodbye before slipping out into the day. The hour was still early and she glanced down at the book in hand before shoving it deep into her coat pocket and threading her way through the throngs of workers. Shopfronts were opening up with displays of wares and Kara stopped at the baker’s to buy a fruit loaf before carrying on her way, the bread tucked safely into her bag.

 

            Still on the fence about going to see Lena, it didn’t deter Kara from joining the slow trickle of travellers and the young and unemployed looking to stretch their legs outside the confines of the walls while the weather was nice. The feeling of the sun on her face made her shoulders drop with a serene look on her face as she ambled along the dirt path, taking her time. There were already carts and wagons with farmers and livestock and crops heading towards the city to sell their wares and she stuck to the grassy edge of the path, humming softly to herself as she breathed in the fresh air.

 

            Kara didn’t wander too far, the walls still easily within sight, a stretch of grey along the horizon behind her as a thicket of trees cropped up along the north-east bank of the river, while a golden sea spread out to the west, unending and rippling with the breeze before they gave way to hazy hills. The mountains were mere smudges, and Lena’s house so far away that Kara knew that she wouldn’t stray that far without a conscious decision, which she’d yet to make. 

 

            The foot traffic and stream of wagons had slowed as most of the young crowd had hugged the path leading down to the seaside cliffs and the white sand dunes, choppy blue waters and a wharf of merchants docking while the fishermen went out for their day’s catch. The rest had taken the fork before the river to head out west and cut down the beaten track, rutted from the use of so many farmer’s, which left her to herself. She’d left her sword at home that morning, with no intention of going beyond the wall, until J’onn had turned her out with his gruff coaxing, and didn’t stray too far out of the prickle of worry that the one time she didn’t have it would be the time she needed it.

 

            Breathing in the chill air, the faint tang of the sea clinging to the day as a northerly wind swept up behind her, ruffling the leaves of the trees and the fields of wheat and barley, Kara closed her eyes as she all but stopped, her footsteps nothing more than meandering scuffing along the dirt path as she basked in the waning summer warmth. Head tipped back, eyelashes fluttering against her cheeks, everything was tinted in a rosy glow of perfection, the day ambling by, lazy and uneventful, until Kara stilled.

 

            Mid-step, she stiffened with a jolt as a prickle of unease washed over her, making the hairs on her arms and back of her neck stand on end. It was some preternatural instinct that made her alert, everything seeming to go quiet for a moment as the world froze. No humming of bees, no wind as it suddenly dropped, not even the sound of her own heart thudding in her chest made it through the deafening silence that rang slightly in her ears.

 

            Blue eyes grave and watchful, the lines of her body rigid like a coiled spring, some part of her on guard against something unseen, something that her body was keenly aware of, even as her mind struggled to catch up and identify what exactly she was picking up on. Eyes narrowing slightly as she shaded them with a hand, Kara scanned the horizon, turning in a slow circle, before coming back to face north with no signs of anything wrong. Lips pursed in grim bewilderment, she made to step forward again and paused.

 

            Seemingly between one blink and the next, there was a figure off to Kara’s right that made itself known. A short way up the road, hidden in the shadows of the thinning trees, and just beyond the periphery of Kara’s vision as she’d looked for danger, but undoubtedly was the cause of her body’s sudden reaction, was a small figure cloaked in the deepest of greens. She didn’t quite blend with the greenery, but the shadows claimed her, and if it wasn’t for the cautious step out of the treeline, just one small step with the rest of her tensed to flee, Kara would’ve missed her entirely. Perhaps she would’ve walked right past her, completely unaware.

 

            As it was, she looked at her, eyes still shaded even as they’d widened, lips parting as the air rushed from her lungs. And Lena looked likewise caught off guard, a look of yearning on her pale face as she slowly inched down the shadowed edge of the woods like a starving animal drawn into a trap. Kara glanced back the way she’d come and found the road empty, hesitated for a moment, and slowly stepped off the road, trampling overgrown grass as she made to meet Lena halfway.

 

            “What are you doing here?” Kara blurted out as Lena paused in the shade, unwilling to step out of the cover the trees provided. A dozen feet separated them and Kara’s long legs quickly crossed the distance. “I mean- I thought-”

 

            A ripple of surprise ran across Lena’s face and she slowly reached inside the voluminous cloak. Pulling her hand back out, something clutched in her palm tight enough to whiten her knuckles, Lena thrust it out towards Kara, a sheepish look on her face as her fingers slowly unfurled. Nestled in the palm of her hand was Kara’s compass.

 

            Mouth falling open as her eyebrows rose in surprise, Kara’s face lit up with delighted surprise, a breathless laugh escaping her as she swooped in, closing the distance between them so she could take up the small case and open it up. The leather was soft and scarred from long years, the face of the compass as scratched as usual, and the needle steadily hovered as it pointed right at Lena.

 

            “I found it while walking through the woods,” Lena whispered.

 

            Her voice was small and faint and so achingly familiar that Kara all but unravelled at the seams, having stayed strong for so long that her stubborn resistance fled from her body at the mere sound of her voice. Oh, how Kara had missed the sound of her gentle voice, witty and quick and full of suppressed laughter - most of the time. Even as something in her stomach tensed and coiled and tangled itself into so many knots, there was a loosening feeling in her chest, and Kara felt like the air had been stolen from her lungs.

 

            “I was almost tempted to keep it as a reminder, but …” she cut off with a small, defeated sigh. Lips pressed into a flat line, cheeks dimpling with a grimace as her brow puckered, Lena shrugged. “You said it was your father’s and I know how much it means to you. So I couldn’t. I couldn’t keep it.”

 

            “How did you know I’d come?”

 

            Blinking in surprise, Lena hesitated, a crease between her brow, “I didn’t. I was going to sneak in with the traffic and leave it on the windowsill of your house. I didn’t expect you to be … that is, were you- were you coming to see me?”

 

            At that moment, Kara wished she had been, just to give Lena that brief moment of feeling missed. Perhaps for the first time in her life. Missed so much that Kara would’ve endangered them both to go out of her way and break the rules they’d put in place for themselves. As it was, she flushed with awkwardness, rubbing at the back of her neck as she let out a strained laugh.

 

            “Um, no. I wasn’t. I mean … I wanted to, but I didn’t want to put you at risk of harm, so … no.”

 

            “You wanted to?”

 

            A small smile tugged at Kara’s lips and she slowly stepped forward, reaching out to cradle Lena’s hand between both of hers, the compass clasped between their palms, and she looked at her with such weariness, such tender longing that she couldn’t help but softly groan, trailing off into a laugh as her heart strained, as if it was trying to meet Lena’s where. It ached more than it had in all the weeks and months they’d been apart, the temptation to buckle dangled right before her. All Kara would have to do was take it, if she truly wanted to.

 

            “Of course I wanted to,” she whispered, her voice so quiet that it was like a sigh of wind. 

 

            Shoulders caving as she looked at Lena with gentle resignation, Kara took another step towards her and raised their hands to press them against her chest. Lips parted as her pupils dilated slightly, whether from the dark as she stumbled back half a step into the shade or from Kara’s looming presence, intense yet gentle, Lena looked up at her with curious innocence. 

 

            “I’ve ached for you every single day; don’t you know that? Enough to make me wish you had taken my memories from me, because at least then I wouldn’t have been taunted with the fact that it was as simple as deciding to go to you.”

 

            A lump formed in Kara’s throat and she quickly ducked her head down, eyes squeezed shut and drew in a shuddering breath, hitching slightly as she opened her mouth to speak. She found it painfully hard to articulate her feelings, unsure if it was wise, given their current predicament. Would it change anything to lay her cards on the table?

 

            “I’ve missed you,” Kara simply stated, peering up through her lashes with uncertainty in her sky blue eyes. “Perhaps if I were a more selfish person … I would’ve gone anyway, but I couldn’t … I couldn’t risk you . And I didn’t expect you today, but now that you’re here … I find myself wishing that neither of us would ever have to leave. I’m not sure if I could bear another goodbye.”

 

            “I’ve missed you too.”

 

            Lena’s voice was little more than a whisper, a note of longing in her words, a look of agonised torment as she lingered on the precipice of a decision. The same decision as Kara. All it would take was for one of them to bend, to take the other’s hand and leap. Yet, the weight of their reality shrouded them, a heavy blanket dampening the moment as Kara stood there with Lena’s hand clutched to her chest, the case of the compass growing warm in their shared grasp. 

 

            And then blue eyes met green and there was nothing more to say. 

 

            Standing on the edge of her heart, Kara looked at her, truly looked at Lena, drinking in the sight of her like it was the first time, moving in close without even realising she was moving, until their foreheads were touching and one of Kara’s hands moved up to cradle the side of Lena’s neck. Eyelashes fluttering as her eyes slid halfway closed, the breath caught in her throat, their noses bumping, Kara’s stomach swooped as she was gently nudged over the edge and swallowed by the depths of her that were consumed with thoughts of Lena.

 

            And their lips came together in a tentative, featherlight kiss, Kara’s eyes closing as she sank into it, the relief of giving in to her desires flooding her with weak-kneed limpness. And Lena hesitated slightly, in a shockingly human way, mildly surprised at the boldness of the bumbling woman before her, before she sank into the kiss, her soft lips firming as she pressed back against Kara. She could feel her heart beneath the back of her hand, stuttering and fast and Lena felt her magic spark and rise beneath the surface of her skin in response.

 

            They pulled apart slightly with sharp inhales, foreheads still touching and the ticklish touch of their mingling breaths on each other’s lips as they stood still, Kara’s hand warm against the side of Lena’s neck, heartbeat’s pounding in tandem and a tang of magic in the air as Lena’s powers pooled like an overflowing cup. Gently bumping her nose slightly against Lena’s, Kara let out a quiet, breathless laugh, almost disbelieving as her eyelashes fluttered against her cheeks and she was loath to let the moment vanish into nothing.

 

            “Tell me to leave again,” she whispered, hoarse and low and aching with the urge for Lena to say the exact opposite.

 

            “I don’t want you to,” Lena murmured, leaning into her, the ghost of her lips on Kara’s, making her skin ripple with goosebumps at the desire that pooled in her stomach. “I know it’s selfish-”

 

            With a quiet laugh, shuddering and warm and laced with relief, Kara pulled back slightly and looked down at her, eyes crinkling at the corners. Raising their joined hands, she brushed a kiss over Lena’s knuckles and took the compass from her grasp, slipping it into a pocket with her other hand as she laced their fingers together.

 

            “If you’re selfish then so am I,” Kara softly told her as Lena let out a quiet laugh.

 

            Stepping forward, urging Lena back, Kara drove them further into the patch of trees, deep enough to obscure them from anyone passing on the road, and further still. Lena turned and tugged on Kara’s hand, pulling her along after her as pale sunlight filtered down green. The trees were sparser than in Lena’s woods, leafy and with wide spaces between the trunks. The lack of the fresh aroma of pine and the winding roots and sloped banks made Kara feel odd, so used to seeing Lena in the dim closeness of her forest, almost like a spectre in the dark, cloaked and hidden. A true witch.

 

            In this moment, she looked youthful and radiant, limned silver by shafts of sunlight and the yellow glow of turning leaves, an eagerness to her usual slow, softness. Kara let herself be drawn after Lena, a look of something akin to awe etched onto her face as she stumbled over her feet, a pink flush to her cheeks as giddy excitement made her stomach flutter. 

 

            There was the pumping of adrenaline too, her body reacting to the reeling thoughts of a mistake being made as her breathing turned shallow. And Kara didn’t care. Not for the foreseeable future, however brief it might be. Having bumped into Lena by chance, the goodbye would hurt anyway. The least they could both get out of it was a small moment of comfort sought in each other. If only that.

 

            “Here,” Lena softly proclaimed, stopping in the middle of a small clearing.

 

            A clearing was generous to call it, seeing as it was nothing more than a sizable space between the surrounding trees, deep enough in that someone would intentionally have to step through the trees to see them. Unclasping her cloak at the throat, Lena splayed it out, air ballooning out the deep green fabric, and set it down over the carpet of leaves, before sinking down on it.

 

            Smiling, Kara pulled her bag off and let it thump to the ground, before settling down on top of the cloak, boots kicked out before her as she looked at Lena with happiness softening her face like a heartsick puppy. Her eyes roamed over her face, drinking in the sight of her, seeking reassurance in what she saw.

 

            “You’ve been well?” Kara quietly asked, leaning back on her elbow and reaching out to delicately brush the back of Lena’s hand, a spark of concern in her questioning eyes.

 

            Smiling, Lena flipping her hand over, their palms meeting, skin warm and soft and tender as Kara gently toyed with her fingers, looking down with pursed lips.

 

            “As always. Not as much excitement as I’d expected,” Lena said with wry amusement, a clipped edge to her words as a ripple of tension passed over her face like a cloud, before the sun came out again and she cocked her head to the side. “What did you tell your sister to call off the inquisition?”

 

            With a thin smile, Kara looked up, her eyes shining as if she was partial to some joke that Lena wasn’t. Straightening up slightly, her face crinkled with amusement. “I didn’t tell her a thing.”

 

            “I- what? Surely she was worried for you? You didn’t return-”

 

            “My boss had a funny little letter about how I was caught up on some business on his behalf, some little errand that took too long and left me spending the night in a nearby town, lest the wicked witches catch me on the way home.”

 

            Narrowing her eyes with a shrewd look of suspicion, Lena pressed her lips into a flat line as she hummed with intrigue. “Interesting. And just how , pray tell, did your boss know for certain of your safety and lack of return enough to have a letter penned?”

 

            “Ah, well that’s the really interesting part,” Kara said, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth as she scooted in closer, “apparently my boss is a Warlock. Shocking, I know. It caught me off guard too, especially because he said he knows you. J’onn. You’re in the same coven?”

 

            With a fleeting smile, Lena dipped her head in a nod, “yes, I know him - vaguely from my childhood. I’ve caught traces of his magic when I’ve strayed close to town. I hadn’t imagined he’d be your boss though.”

 

            “Mm, me too. Well, he’d caught traces of your magic on me as well, so we’ve not been as inconspicuous as we’d hoped, but all is well still. Alex hasn’t so much as suggested at something being amiss, J’onn has kept our secret for months, and people still don’t know where you dwell. All is well as can be.”

 

            Cocking her head to the side, Lena’s eyebrows rose slightly as she studied Kara with a mystified look. “So … you’re safe?”

 

            “I’m safe. And you and I … I’ve spent the past few weeks and months wanting to come back to you. I just- I didn’t want to endanger you, and J’onn said you’d be fine-”

 

            “I would,” Lena gently assured her, caressing her cheek with her fingertips as a pucker formed between her eyebrows. “I need no protection from anyone, but you … this could’ve turned out badly. Even now … it’s a risk.”

 

            Sitting up, face to face with Lena as she knelt before her, Kara took her hands in her own and gave her an insistent look, “I know it is, for both of us, regardless of what you say, but … I don’t care for my own safety. It hurts anyway, doesn’t it? To be parted from you … I never imagined I’d feel something so keenly as that, but I do. And is it worth putting myself through that pain to suffer anyway? I don’t think it is.”

 

            Face softening, Lena squeezed her hands tightly and leant forward, Kara meeting her halfway so their foreheads could touch. “I would never forgive myself if something happened to you. Not for my own happiness.”

 

            “And what about mine?”

 

            “You would still be alive. Safe.”

 

            “Safety is never guaranteed though,” Kara said, relinquishing her hold on Lena’s hands to reach up and brush a lock of dark hair out of her face, threading her fingers through it and cupping the back of her head. “This is. Isn’t it?”

 

            Hesitating for a moment, Lena let out a faint sigh, sagging with defeat, “it could be, yes.”

 

            “Then tell me to go if it’s not possible.”

 

            Teeth grit as she chafed with frustration and the truth, her stubborn resolution making her stoic and unyielding, Lena didn’t want to say it. She didn’t want to risk Kara. No matter what dangers could be thrust upon her from consorting with the sister of a witch torturer, Lena wouldn’t perish unless things were dire indeed. She would rain down death and destruction, the likes of with the toy soldiers with their wrongful captures and killings had never seen because they’d never really met a witch before. They would never catch her unless she surrendered, never kill her unless she didn’t move to strike them down. 

 

            But Kara. Sweet, naïve Kara who didn’t understand the truth of the world, caught with a foot on either side of the divide, would certainly be in danger if they were caught together. If so much as a whisper of rumour was cast upon her, and while she didn’t doubt her sister would defend her, there was only so much she could do too, and Lena would step in. She knew she’d step in to save her. Lena would throw herself to the wolves for Kara, and that frightened her more than she cared to admit.

 

            “You’re all that I’ve known for a while,” Lena whispered, her voice a sigh as she braced herself on Kara’s knee, “I couldn’t let you go, even if I tried. You’re in me. In my heart. I didn’t mean for it to happen. We barely know each other, I just- I know a year could pass without seeing you and I would still feel it. I’d feel it in my chest, ‘til the end of my days.”

 

            “You would?” Kara asked, her voice small and hopeful, even as it was laced with sadness at the thought of Lena pining for her too. Pulling back, her hand falling down to cover the pale one on her knee, she looked at Lena with wide eyes.

 

            “There’s magic in love,” Lena simply stated. “It’s a spell of its own design. A natural magic. I couldn’t break it if I wanted to.”

 

            Kara’s breath caught in her throat at the word, her chest constricting as her heart soared. She couldn’t even bring herself to speak for a moment, flustered as her throat tightened, and when she did, her voice was raspy and laced with urgency.

 

            “Then don’t.”

 

            With a laugh, Lena pulled back and flopped down on her back, eyes closing as light caressed her face and amusement coloured her face. Birds hopped along the branches above them, drawn to the magic in Lena’s blood that sang in tune with nature, squirrels scurrying up trunks and even the sight of yellow fox eyes peering out through a fern. She raised a hand as she smiled, a spider crawling over the backs of her fingers and dropping on a slender thread of silk before Lena caught it and set it down on a nearby leaf to scuttle away and build its web.

 

            “Is that what you dream of? A life of hiding, of never truly being together? A life with a knife dangling above your head and the thread of persecution above mine?”

 

            “No,” Kara said, stubbornly jutting her chin forward as her brow furrowed with a serious look, “I dream of a world where it doesn’t matter what you are. You’d just be … mine.”

 

            Cracking an eye open, Lena gave her a quick smile, “that would be nice. With a witch though? Are you sure?”

 

            Rolling her eyes good-humouredly, Kara shifted down beside Lena and propped her chin up in her hand as she looked down at her, a tender softness to her face as she smiled. “I’m sure.”

 

            “Why don’t we stay awhile?” Lena suggested, her eyes closing again as she basked in the warmth of the weak sunlight. “Perhaps it could be real, even if it’s just for a moment.”

 

            Her smile hitched, uneven and tentative, before Kara relaxed on top of the cloak, feeling the tension bleed out of her as she succumbed to the moment. “And after?”

 

            “We’ll both go home,” Lena stated, matter-of-factly. Her eyes snapped open and she turned to look at Kara, a grave look in her eyes, even as a smile played on her lips. “And you’ll have your compass.”

 

            Reaching into her pocket, Kara drew it out and opened up the case, a crease between her brows as she watched the needle point at Lena. “It still works.”

           

            “You’ll always be able to find me if you need to,” Lena murmured, a troubled look clouding her face, “even if it’s not … for a good reason.”

 

            “So that means … we’re to be selfish?”

 

            Lena’s answering laugh rang through the trees, bright and loud like birdsong, startling the sparrows and finches and wrens into a flurry of swooping wings as they arranged themselves accordingly a short ways away, blending in with the foliage of the canopy.

 

            “Is it selfish if it’s what we both desire?”

 

            Humming, Kara deliberated for a moment, head tilted to the side as a pensive look crossed her face, “perhaps. But perhaps not. All I know is that a lot is at stake, and we’re walking a fine line. I don’t typically covet danger. In fact, I studiously avoid it. I just wanted to print my books, until I met you.”

 

            “And that was perhaps the most dangerous thing you could’ve done,” Lena lightly said, her voice low and thoughtful.

 

            “Then maybe everything else pales in comparison. I once offered you my heart and you help me at swordpoint, and both dangers passed. Maybe … it wouldn’t be tempting fate too much to choose danger once more. Maybe fate is on our side.”

 

            “Fate is on no one’s side,” Lena answered, her voice sharp and somewhat disgruntled, a bitterness creeping into her face as her mouth thinned. “We make our own choices.”

 

            Swallowing a burning question and a placating reassurance, Kara looked at her for a long moment and watched the muscles working in Lena’s jaw, the tense set to her face making her look sharper.

 

            “Then I choose you, no matter the risks or consequences.”

 

            “You would forfeit your life? Just like that?” Lena asked, forlorn and haggard-looking.

 

            “I wouldn’t forsake you.”

 

            “Neither would I. I can’t promise that I can protect you, but I would never leave.”

 

            Recoiling slightly as a frown graced her delicate face, sunny disposition hidden behind clouded worry, Kara slowly shook her head. “I wouldn’t want that, Lena. I would want you to escape.”

 

            Pushing herself up onto her elbows, she gave Kara an appeasing smile, “I make my own choices too. And for now, I choose to turn to lighter topics. We’ve lingered too long on the darkness, and time runs thin.”

 

            Shoulders sloping with a defeated surrender, knowing they’d get no further that day, Kara reached for her bag and pulled out the loaf of fruit bread, presenting it like it was a treasure. By the look on Lena’s face, the way it hungered and her eyes widened a fraction, that’s exactly what it was. 

 

            They spent the rest of the morning and into the afternoon spread out on that cloak, eating chunks of the soft bread, riddled with currants and dried apple and cranberries, apricots and goat’s cheese from Kara’s bag and a few walnuts squirrelled away at the bottom. Kara read aloud poems from the book J’onn had given her, with Lena’s head in her lap, and they whittled away the hours with words and an audience of woodland creatures, drawn to the witch and the magic of Kara’s voice.

 

            And for a little while, they were together and safe, and that was enough.

Chapter Text

            Autumn became a period of refuge for Kara and Lena, the former sneaking out often multiple times a week, she didn’t risk staying another night, but those fleeting hours under the cover of the trees was enough. Her weeks revolved around days of long, meandering walks, the smell of hay and bruised apples adding a sweetness to the brisk wind as she hurried along with a spring in her step, her cheeks rosy apples as she beamed, gifts tucked away in her pockets or bag to unload on Lena’s unsuspecting person. 

 

            Kara loved to surprise her, bringing autumn berry tarts and sweet cheese wrapped in a handkerchief, slim volumes of poetry from J’onn’s shop and her personal cache, hand-crafted soaps in the shapes of woodland creatures and balls of dyed wool in deep shades for Lena to knit into whatever she needed to last the winter. Each time she showed up it made her heart skip a beat as she came across Lena in various areas of the woods and surrounding areas, shearing a lost sheep before sending it back to its herd, milking the goats that clambered up the rocky foothills so she could make cheese and have fresh milk, lost in the tall stalks of wheat and barley, stealing grains in a metal pail to grind for flour and porridge. 

 

            The newness of it all was exciting, her breath quickening, her cheeks flushing with delight as she watched Lena’s wary expression brighten in response to her spontaneous arrival, and Kara couldn’t get over the way her stomach clenched as Lena turned her gaze on her. The way it shocked her to her core, filled her with such urgency that even as she knew they were flirting with danger, risking more than just their lives, she couldn’t turn away.

 

            Today was another risk. No more than usual. Dropping into the shop that morning, a quiet one where J’onn shooed her out the door, understanding the shortening days and frequent bad weather that would soon cause a problem for Kara’s trips, she was soon on her way, splashing through ditch water as a deluge soaked right through her tatty coat. Still, nothing could put a damper on Kara’s buoyed spirits as her boots squelched through mud and fought for grip up the damp sides of steep hills, forging through the gentle valleys as she made overland on a goat trail too precarious for a relaxing walk for a human. It cut time off her trip though, even if it added a few grazes to Kara’s palms and stripes of mud on the knees and seat of her pants.

 

            It was particularly cold that morning, the sky grey and still clinging to the pre-dawn darkness, giving the day a hushed feeling as she trampled along all alone. The occasional bird swooped through the fog lingering in the dips of the dells, flitting to bare branches of lone, skeletal trees, and Kara’s breath plumed before her, only slightly whiter than the fingers of mist that reached out, ensaring her as it clawed through the thinness of her clothes. In her bag were a few sets of spares, skirts wine holes from her carelessness and shirts shrunk too short as they dried by the fire, things that Lena would be able to use, being of smaller stature with no need to worry about whether it was proper to walk around with a hole in her clothes. Kara’s most recent gift for her lover.

 

            Picking clover and breathing in the dampness of the later months, Kara’s mind was preoccupied as she made the familiar walk, her compass tucked safely away from the elements for the time being. One hand on the slick pommel of her sword, the rain pattering against her broad, hunched shoulders as it plastered her hair to her skin in brassy tendrils, she twirled the stems of grass and wildflowers and weeds as she picked them along the way, scattering the seeds for the spring, and thought about what she was risking.

 

            Was Alex suspicious yet? Would J’onn be able to fend off her sister’s suspicious questions easily? Or would he, too, find himself swimming in hot water along with the witch and the foolish human who couldn’t stay away? Kara didn’t want to risk anyone else’s lives through her clandestine meetings with Lena, but she also didn’t want to stop. Staying away didn’t bode well for either of them with their pining and loneliness, all-consuming and leaving them bitter with grief and regret. If her sister was anyone else, worked anywhere else, things would be another story. Perhaps Kara would’ve been able to reason with her, be honest with Alex about where she went on her days off, what she was up to and with who.

 

            Instead, the mere thought of spilling the truth to her sister instilled Kara with stiff fear, the shivering, ominous sensation sliding down her spine like ice water. Alex was prone to holding grudges for longer than Kara could remember why it had started in the first place. Her sister would hold onto her beliefs with iron-willed stubbornness, a soldier to the bone, albeit one that worked for the crown in a different manner. One couldn’t be soft to withstand the torture of even the foulest evils to walk the earth - although, if Lena and J’onn’s words were true, Alex had never interrogated more than the most innocent of women. The thought made Kara’s heart sink, knowing her sister could be gentle, was so warm with her, quick to laugh and with a fierce protectiveness.

 

            Alex’s feelings weren’t misplaced, but her beliefs were. Kara could see that now. Her sister wanted to protect her family, protect the city, following in the footsteps of dozens before her, ferreting out lies and sinister practices that had been reported by superstitious town and farm folk, but she had no idea she was part of a system condemning innocents to a painful death on the pyre. Kara shuddered to think of her flesh being burnt off, blackening from the searing heat as it peeled away from her muscle, from bone, ragged screams tearing at her throat as she breathed in the noxious smoke. Was she strong enough to withstand that, if it came to it? Was Lena worth that risk?

 

            But they would protect each other. Of course they would. It was the two of them now, the two of them to protect each other if it came to it, if they were exposed, and Kara would face down her sister if they ever came against each other. The thought turned her solemn as she walked, a grave heaviness to her sad blue eyes as her shoulders curled inwards. Even the thought of finding herself opposing Alex made her stomach turn, a tremor in her cold fingers as she squashed a dandelion into a feathery mess clinging to her damp hands. 

 

            Even for Lena, Kara wasn’t sure she’d be strong enough for that. To hold a sword to the throat of the sister she loved dearly, despite her misguided thoughts, the brainwashing that fear had instilled in her since birth. Alex, who she’d been ready to slaughter a witch for - although she’d quickly come to realise she couldn’t do that to Lena either - wouldn’t suffer at Kara’s hands. Yet, she knew that if it came down to it, she couldn’t let them hurt each other on her account either. If it came to it, Lena could shred Alex apart in a thousand painful ways, horrors the likes of which the humans hadn’t seen in these parts for decades, centuries even. But if Kara’s life was threatened, she knew Alex would gladly go to her death for her, and the thought made Kara mournful as guilt nagged at her and she found herself at a loss.

 

            Kicking at a clump of grass clinging to black earth, tearing a furrow in the ground, Kara grit her teeth as she let out a quiet snarl of frustration. Cold and hungry, her thoughts had soured her mood and made her fears come creeping out in the desolate morning, and she wished so badly that Lena was already with her. She was a balm to Kara’s fears and worries. The moment she stood before her, it all became so easy. There wasn’t any other choice she would consider making now, her hammering heart speaking for her as she marvelled at the softness of Lena’s snow-white skin, relished the feeling of her lips, as chapped as they were, basked in the domesticity of her days spent in the dingy cottage, learning to cook and make poultices, listening to stories of witch councils and sacred rituals and holidays as they drank tea by the fire, roasting chestnuts and hazelnuts in the baking ashes. Each moment was pure bliss.

 

            Each goodbye was a needle through both of their hearts, fraught with badly concealed fear and this was the last. This would be the time they were caught, that Kara would be found out by Alex and would rot away in the dungeons until they burnt her. And Lena would be waiting for a visit that never came, or a visit off J’onn, who would undoubtedly find her if that came to pass. Kara almost wished she could leave a letter, tell her sister she’d run away with the daughter of a farmer, gone on some great adventure to see the world. It would be easier that way. No one would look for her, no one would know she sat mere hours away, in the forest with a witch, spending the rest of her days delighting in the simple pleasures of life.

 

            But then Kara would think of Lena and what she wanted. Would she even let Kara come and live with her? It was presumptuous to think so, but things would be so easy. Perhaps it was too soon yet, but for Kara, it felt like a solution. Until she thought of winter, of the hard months, both of them shivering in the cramped cottage, damp wood smouldering as even Lena’s magic failed to light it, both of them skin and bones as Lena’s stores suddenly had to feed two, until they were so hollowed out that they could barely bring themselves to rise from the bed, weak as they were. And then how would they gather more food? How would they get enough water from the frozen well that Lena had to pump and pump to get enough for herself?

 

            No, Kara would not force such suffering on her by taking away Lena’s choice. It was better to err on the side of caution and hope things resolved themselves, risking trips out in the mid-winter as the countryside became a barren wasteland blanketed in snow and ice and bitter winds that bit the skin red. At least then she could bring supplies, bring loaves of bread and meats and thick woollen blankets. Lena would eat better this winter, that much Kara was sure of. Already she’d helped stock the cool underground larder with salted cuts of meat and fish, filling the shelves with new wheels of cheese, chunks of goose fat and wedges of creamy butter. Replenishing nearly depleted jars of spices Lena couldn’t find in the wild, or dried fruits that would keep through the cold months. Kara had even managed to whisk a bottle of Alex’s brandy out of the cupboard and out to the wilds, now gracing Lena’s shelves beside a new tin of tea leaves. Real tea, brought from a distant land Kara didn’t know the name of; not the medicinal ones Lena frequently drank.

 

            Kara could take care of her, as much as Lena always quietly assured her she didn’t have to. But Kara still did it anyway, eagerly spending her hard-earned savings on the witch to make sure she didn’t suffer for the cruelty other’s inflicted upon her through their suspicions that wouldn’t let Lena within a hundred feet of even the smallest hamlets dotting the countryside unless she was desperate. She couldn’t understand that desperation, but Kara would do everything she could to make sure Lena didn’t feel it again either. As if sensing her sudden splurging on things she couldn’t have possibly needed for herself, J’onn had even given her a raise of a few extra silvers a week, a gratefully accepted offer that Kara had put to good use.

 

            She was busy thinking about her next gift when she pulled the compass out, using it for directions on the last leg of the trip as she climbed another incline, a strong breeze bringing the briny smell of the sea with it, just faintly. Plodding along, her muscles aching from the way she’d been tense the whole walk from the permeating cold that had numbed her, Kara’s brow furrowed with a contemplative look, deliberating between whether she should bring Lena a pair of boots next time, or maybe a new quilt for her bed for some added warmth this winter.

 

            Debating the pros and cons as she made a treacherous descent into the final valley, this one deeper and still clinging to mist despite the lateness of the morning as wan sunlight spilt over the foothills and chased away some of the chill, Kara was lost in her own thoughts. The compass was pointing towards what she thought was the cottage, and the thought of a fire and shelter from the howling wind was a welcome thought that intruded into her brooding thoughts.

 

            On the one hand, she knew how important a good, sturdy pair of boots were. Especially this far out, wandering the countryside as much as Lena did. Kara winced at the thought of the large blood-filled blisters she’d been subjected to the first few times, relieved that her feet had grown calluses now. But she couldn’t deny how useful a proper quilt could be, filled with soft, spun wool, perhaps made from some of Eliza’s embroidered fabric to make it pretty. Lena might require hardy, useful things more than frilly trifles that couldn’t withstand wear, but that didn’t mean it had to be so utilitarian. Kara would see if her mother had anything green.

 

            She still ruminating over her choices as she ducked beneath the boughs of the low-hanging branches, her breath misting in the dark confines of the forest, somehow still shrouded in gloominess despite the thinning canopy as some trees shed its foliage. The ones that didn’t threw everything into fiery shades and sparse greenery as the coniferous trees filled the air with fresh pine, sharp and clean. It immediately chased away any lingering tension dwelling in Kara’s muscles and she was slow and pensive as she climbed over logs, pushed through ferns and swept aside draping moss. 

 

            Water pinged off the leaves as it steadily pattered on, the clouds a dismal grey in the snatches she caught through breaks in the canopy. Walking up mounds and down slopes, over trickles running off the main river and shallow ponds of mud and up banks of loamy soil that she left gouged footsteps in. The forest wasn’t big, in comparison to the sprawling mass lingering along the bottom of the mountains like a dark stain shadowing the land, the tree-dotted rocking foothills giving way to scrubby greenery that swept the length of the horizon, yet it was big enough. Big enough for Kara to have not made too much headway past the boundary line before she was accosted.

 

            Unbeknownst to her, she’d been seen stepping into the shadowed darkness of the trees, a pair of sharp eyes watching her from the heavily cloaked figure watching from the top of the valley, on the opposite ridge from where she’d descended. It took mere moments for the watcher to descend, wind currents swirling and guiding their drop as they smoothly touched down on the grassy meadow set before the copse of trees. Kara was already past the first row of sentinels creaking their branches and sighing as their leaves rustled like whispering voices overlapping each other. 

 

            The first inkling she had that something was wrong was the hair on the back of her neck standing on end in a way that jolted her stomach with unease. Moving slowly, listening to the rain and the louder rustling of the trees, which almost seemed like a warning to the young woman they’d grown accustomed to seeing, Kara listened to her rapid breaths as her heart thudded loudly in her chest. Feeling paranoid, even as her skin crawled with a feeling of malevolence hanging in the air, seeping and spreading towards her, she kept on with a tight grip on the pommel of her sword.

 

            Over the next gentle rise, moss-slick rocks bordering on a small gorge full of gnarled and twisting roots creeping across the leafy ground, Kara quickly ducked down in a natural alcove where the earth had crumbled away over time, exposing sedimentary layers of silt and sand and earth piled on top of each other. Her pulse spiked and a cold sweat covered her as she crouched in place, straining her ears to listen. She was sure she was just being silly - nothing could hurt her in Lena’s forest - but her instincts told her otherwise, and she was loath to ignore them. They were primal, the basis of her animal instincts, and Kara trusted her gut.

 

            It was moments later when she was proven right, footsteps stopping just above her, almost as if they already knew her hiding spot. Silently squirming into a more comfortable position as dirty and tiny pebbles rained down on her, she waited for a moment with bated breath, looking up through a gap in the tangles roots, hoping that it was just Lena. The feeling of being watched had been too foul though, unnaturally predatory, a feeling that had never waylaid Kara in the forest before. 

 

            It wasn’t the magic woven in the air either, the layers of spells creating a tapestry over Lena’s territory, palpable in the air, even now. That was natural, a faint tang lingering in the air, a heaviness to it as she breathed it in and out with each lungful. It was no more harmful than the air or the trees, a living, breathing thing that Lena fed with her powers to keep herself safe, and even the lingering fuzziness that Kara could never quite shake as she first acclimated to the woods didn’t impede on the sense of dread that made her throat dry.

 

            Everything was silent for a moment, neither of them moving as Kara waited and silently prayed that the other figure would move on without noticing her, but Kara didn’t know she’d already been caught. Too busy looking up through cracks in the roots, trying to stay still and quiet, she didn’t see the finger of water swerve out of the thin stream meandering past, diverting its course on command as it rippled over leaves and twigs and pine cones before it lashed out.

 

            One moment Kara was crouched in her hollow and the next she was jerked from her hiding spot by her ankle, dragged foot-first across the dirt and mud as she scrabbled for something to cling onto, tearing up small plants as she squawked indignantly. Eyes wide and face pale, she blinked back black spots as she tried to catch her breath, upside down as she watched a tall figure loom towards her, steps slow and measured.

 

            With a careless flick of a hand, more ropes of water snaked from the stream, frigid and like a vice as they wrapped around Kara, picking her up and holding her midair. Heart in her throat, Kara’s head whipped from side to side as she struggled against the water. Water which shouldn’t have even been able to hold her aloft, make contact with her skin in such a manner, yet it felt like shackles encircling her wrists, her arms, her ankles and calves, suspending her in the middle of the small gully in the trees.

 

            “What the-” Kara breathlessly struggled, before her fearful blue eyes turned to the tall woman standing a short ways away.

 

            With a quiet chuckle, she gave her helpless victim a harsh smile, her canines just a little too sharp for Kara’s comfort. There was something off about the woman that triggered Kara’s dread all too keenly, something utterly inhuman, terrifying and dangerous, making her instincts scream at her to flee. And without a shadow of a doubt, Kara knew that this was a witch. A witch made from the stuff of nightmares, the origins of dozens of tales told around fires late at night, the reason why the townsfolk warded their homes and hunters snatched those they thought were suspicious.

 

            And yet, they’d never come close to anything like this. Staring into a pair of eyes so cold that it made her insides quail beneath the harsh scrutiny, Kara knew that she was done for. This was a witch she wouldn’t want to cross paths with in broad daylight, let alone on the darkest night. And here she was, ensnared in a trap she hadn’t even seen coming until she’d walked right into it, a fly in a spiderweb, with the spider looming in.

 

            Chuckling again, the woman smiled with satisfaction, her eyes narrowing in a shrewd manner, and despite the danger she posed, Kara couldn’t stop her lips from parting as she took in the utter wrongness of the woman being here. Here, in Lena’s forest, where the wild witch looked so at home amongst the moss and trees and dirt. This witch was polished, almost refined in her elegance, if it wasn’t for the obvious signs of the occult that marked her as anything but a noble lady.

 

            She wore a purple robe that looked like the colour of a bruise, repellant and ghastly as it draped off her willowy frame, cinched at the waist and wrists and embroidered with sigils that sent a glaring warning even if Kara couldn’t decipher them. Her lips stained the same foul colour, caramel hair pulled back into a sleek twist, not a strand out of place, with a line of black tracing from her lower lip all the way down her throat, before it disappeared beneath her robes. Perhaps most threatening of all were the steel-tipped talons of her fingernails, long and clawed and wickedly sharp as she tapped one against her lip, pondering her prey.

 

            “Well, well, what have we caught?” the woman mused, eyes flashing with savage eagerness.

 

            “Who are you?”

 

            Clicking her tongue, the woman moved fast, her robe billowing behind her as she descended on Kara, eye level with her even as Kara’s toes dangled inches above the ground. Grazing one of Kara’s rosy cheeks with the tip of a honed nail, the woman’s brow furrowed slightly in an admonishing look, before she grabbed her chin in her tight grasp.

 

            “You do not make demands of me,” she hissed in Kara’s face, pupils almost swallowing the pale green of her eyes.

 

            One of her nails scratched Kara’s cheek, leaving a superficial red line across her skin, and Kara swallowed thickly as she stared into those eyes. They were filled with all-consuming hatred, not even a flicker of compassion or humanity to be seen there, and Kara’s stomach lurched. She’d been working hard to shed her prejudice towards those with magic, and with nothing to compare it to but Lena and J’onn, their warmth, their kindness and gentle souls, it was a slap of reality to bring her face to face with a woman who evidently hated her. Kara could see it, as if the woman oozed her contempt and hostility towards her.

 

            And then the witch smiled, wolfish and full of cold humour, making Kara’s skin ripple with sudden goosebumps at the horror the sight instilled. “Oh, but am I glad to find you here,” she murmured, her voice velvety smooth, almost a purr, the tip of her claw trailing from Kara’s cheek all the way down her chin and to her throat, where it bobbed as she forced herself to swallow her fear.

 

            The faint amusement vanished as the witch tightened her grip, five points needling into the thin skin of Kara’s throat, drawing beads of vivid red blood as she punctured her hard enough to inevitably leave bruises. Drawing in a shallow hiss of pain, Kara’s face spasmed slightly, but she wouldn’t give the witch the satisfaction of knowing it hurt, knowing she was so terrified that her knees would give out if she was allowed to stand on her own two feet. Stretched out as she was, vulnerable to anything the witch wanted to do to her, it was out of obstinate pride that Kara remained silent as she faced her down, willing to go with strength.

 

            Inhaling deeply, the woman’s lip curled and she tightened her grip, nails digging in deeper until she elicited a small whimper to satisfy her sadistic nature. “Hm,” she mused, eyes creasing slightly with humour, “there’s fight in you. Odd, for a human, but you still reek of their weakness. It won’t save you.”

 

            “Only one thing can save me now,” Kara murmured through bloodless lips, her voice brittle and shaking even as she ground her teeth together, trying to rein in her fear. “I’m not so disillusioned to think I can beat you.”

 

            Her laugh was like a whip cracking through the air as she reached for the pommel of Kara’s sword and drew it from the sheath in one fluid movement, not even moving away from her prey to do so. Turning her head to the side, all sharp angles and gaunt haughtiness, the witch cast the old thing a cursory look before she snorted, tossing it aside with a flick of her fingers, the sword driving itself into the soft mud.

 

            “No, indeed you could not,” she said, her voice steel and smug as she preened, “but it’s no fun without a fight. Perhaps I should give you a chance to prove your mettle before I kill you. If you impress me … maybe I’ll make it quicker. Go, pick up your sword, human scum. Let us see what weaknesses generations of breeding have instilled in their inept, doltish youth.”

 

            The ropes of water retreated then, letting Kara go with sudden release, and she thudded to the packed earth with surprise, the air rushing out of her lungs as she lay there winded, gasping like a fish on dry land. 

 

            “Go,” the witch snarled as Kara looked at her black leather boots before her.

 

            Crawling as she tried to stagger to her feet in her haste, Kara all but fell on her sword, kneeling in the dirt as she yanked it free, holding it in her trembling hands, her arms gripped by leaden weakness all of a sudden as she climbed to her feet. Her neck smarted, thin lines of blood streaking her skin, and she drew in quick, panicked breaths as she looked at the witch, squaring her stance and shoulders.

 

            With a scornful laugh, the witch crooked a finger and Kara’s eyes went round as she found herself yanked forward on some invisible string as if she was nothing more than a puppet. Pointing the tip of her sword straight as she careened towards the woman, she straightened her arms with the intention of spearing her on it. With a careless gesture, the sword was turned aside, yanking Kara with it as her mouth fell open in mournful defeat. Of course, she didn’t really think she’d be able to beat the witch, but surely Lena knew she was here. Kara had imagined surviving long enough to distract the witch, but even that seemed like a slim chance now as she found herself the mouse in the witch’s game.

 

            The force that had veered her off course suddenly relented and Kara staggered a few steps as laughter rang out behind her, before she whirled around, slashing quickly in defence, her eyes wild and roaming as she tried to pin down the witch. She’d barely moved a few steps, slow and swaggering, reeking of superiority and contempt. With an exaggerated sigh, she shook her head, mouth thinning.

 

            “I’d been hoping for … well, more. How … disappointing.”

 

            With a war cry that echoed in the trees, Kara lunged for her, sword hefted as she screwed her face up with anger. Looking mildly surprised, the woman preoccupied herself with her steel nails until Kara neared her before she sent a spike of magic into the ground and roots sprang up, tearing through the black earth to trip up the young woman. Stepping aside as Kara’s foot got caught, the witch didn’t even look up as her victim went sprawling, sword skittering away from her. 

 

            Gasping for air, Kara crawled forward on her stomach, propping herself up onto her elbows as her feet found purchase on the ground, quickly trying to reach her sword. Only, after the first few inches of ground, she found she couldn’t go any further. It was like someone had grasped the tails of her coat, holding her in place as she struggled onwards, but when she looked over her shoulder with a stricken expression on her face, it was nothing but the wind as the witch watched on with folded arms and a cruel smile.

 

            A silent snarl twisted Kara’s mouth as she scrabbled at the ground, grabbing fistfuls of muddy leaves and furrows of dirt that caked her fingernails as she listened to slow footsteps cross the distance separating them.

 

            “A pity-”

 

            Twisting around, Kara tossed a handful of clod into the woman’s face, striking a pallid, sharp cheekbone and leaving the witch stunned. She knew it was the wrong move the moment she’d done it, the air of delight the woman took in tormenting her that lit up her eyes quickly souring as a black expression darkened her face. Before Kara could even scuttle backwards, a foot slammed down on her leg with so much force that something audibly cracked, making her face turn green as a whimper fell from her lips.

           

            “You little worm,” the witch snarled, bearing down on her.

 

            With a snap of her fingers, the whips of water were back, striking for Kara and binding her tightly, snaking around her arms and legs until she was hoisted back into the air, a white-hot pain lancing up her leg as she fought against her restraints.

 

            “I’m going to gut you. Slowly .”

 

            The words made her struggle harder, wriggling and twisting against the binding hold of the frigid water until the woman grew impatient and backhanded her with fierce strength. Pain blossomed along Kara’s cheek as she grit her teeth, tasting the coppery tang of blood in her mouth as her lip split open. 

 

            Cheek reddening, she glowered at the witch and continued to struggle, until the water writhed across her, snapping her legs together and arms to her sides, soaking into her clothes and leaving her shivering and rigid with panic as she found herself unable to move. 

 

            “That’s better,” the woman crooned, giving her another chilling smile.

 

            Slowly, she reached out, ripping open the front of Kara’s coat, brass buttons torn free and falling to the ground as Kara cried out in forlorn protest, and pursed her lips as she stared at the faded red of Kara’s shirt. After deliberating for a moment, her expression contemplative as if deciding how to butcher her, she looked up and met Kara’s eyes. Just for a brief moment, the blown pupils alight with glee as she took in the terror in Kara’s.

 

            “I’m going to enjoy this.”

 

            Before Kara could plead, could swallow her pride and beg - although she knew it would make no difference in the end - steel nails thrust into the soft flesh of her stomach, to the left of her abdomen, just below the rib cage. She couldn’t stop the scream that tore from her throat, feeling those claws inside her, hot blood flowing over the fingers slowly pushing inside her, reaching upwards, aiming for her heart.

 

            Kara had to hand it to the witch, she definitely knew what she was doing, but she wasn’t quick enough. She’d spent too long toying with her prey to indulge in a long, drawn-out torture, because mere moments after Kara screamed, a peal of thunder so loud that it made the trio’s ears ring sounded overhead, vibrations sent deep into the ground, pulsating up through their feet and rattling their teeth in their heads.

 

            “Let. Her. Go.”

 

            The quiet, punctuated command was low and guttural, a ragged edge to Lena’s voice as she struggled to catch her breath, bone-white with fear yet pink-cheeked from exerting herself on the miles she’d raced through the trees at the tripped wards that signified not one, but two in her forest. The scream heard only moments ago just solidified what she feared; Kara was in trouble.

 

            What Lena didn’t expect was to come upon her, bloody and beaten, suspended mid-air by arguably the last person she wanted to see. Even as she stood there, the thunder still a fading rumble, their ears still ringing, her mother turned and looked at her with mild surprise, as if she wasn’t nearly wrist-deep in the stomach of her daughter’s lover.

 

            “You allow vermin into your domain?” Lillian sneered. “Oh, but that’s so like you, dearest daughter. Ever the peaceful one.”

 

            “Daughter?” Kara choked out, feeble and pale, her brow clammy with a cold sweat as she managed to latch onto the one word Lena hoped she would’ve been too delirious to comprehend.

 

            Biting back a curse, Lena’s lips twisted as her face crumpled with anger, and as she flexed her fingers, emerald fire engulfed her hands. It grew so quickly, searing the dozens of feet separating her from her mother and lover so that even Kara’s skin beaded with sweat at the wall of heat that slammed into her. The fire almost enveloped Lena, making Kara’s heart lurch in her chest out of fear that she was going to be consumed by the flames, but it didn’t harm her. Lena was pale and stony-faced within the column of deep green as she stared down her mother.

 

            “I said let her go!” Lena snarled, baring her teeth slightly. “I won’t ask again, mother.”

 

            She took a few steps forward in warning, eyes blazing as the ground blackened beneath her, and Lillian watched her with cold eyes and a faint smile curling the corners of her mouth, amused by her daughter’s theatrics. There was no fear there though, and Kara’s breath caught in her throat at the pain in her stomach, her vision swimming as blood spilt out of her, splattering to the leaves below and staining that hand crimson.

 

            “You’re in my realm now,” Lena cautioned in a low voice, drifting closer, yet angling herself away from Kara, forcing her mother to twist to track her movements. “You won’t sully this ground with innocent blood.”

 

            “Innocent,” Lillian scoffed, “is there such a thing as an innocent human? No matter; I’ll deal with you quickly.”

 

            Letting out a withering sigh, Lillian slowly withdrew her hand, slick and wet with red that made Lena’s vision swim as her anger boiled to new heights, while Kara seemed to sag in her bindings, so pale that Lena was worried at her blood loss. 

 

            Reaching out with her monstrous, gory hand, Lillian crooked a finger and Lena watched as a whip of green flame detached itself from the column burning around her, responding to her mother’s call. It turned to flames the colours of mulberries as it twined with her mother’s magic, reeled in by her strength, more than a match for Lena. Swallowing her panic, Lena fought to keep a hold on her fire, even as Lillian siphoned off more, enjoying stealing her daughter’s fire more than the simple act of summoning her own flames. Lillian had always liked games.

 

            Evenly matched with their weapons of fire, they stared at each other for a long moment, Lena was reluctant to fight her, knowing her mother would punish her with a harsh lesson. She expected her mother to draw it out, forcing her hand for Kara’s sake, but it was only a long minute before Lillian thrust a hand forward, sending a lethal whip towards her daughter.

 

            Holding her hands up before her, Lena shielded herself with fire, the flames creating a wall before her as her mother’s caustic whip crashed into it. It was futile, and Lillian realised that quickly, calling up wind with her other hand and sending a cutting arc of condensed wind towards Lena. It blew right through the fire, exposing her as her fire guttered and the cold scythe of air pushed her back a few steps.

 

            “You’ve grown complacent, Lena,” Lillian tutted as she drew her arm back and lashed out with the whip of fire in her other hand.

 

            It wrapped around Lena’s arm, blistering her skin as she hissed with pain, face twisting before she yanked herself free. Fire nothing more than cinders falling from her fingertips, she reached out for the trees. The trees that felt like an extension of herself, her old friends, so familiar that she knew each and every one of them within her patch of forest. Seeing red as her arm screamed with the pain of her burns, Lena dropped to her knees and thrust a hand into the black earth, her eyes closing as her lips moved soundlessly in a fervent plea, magic funnelling down and down, through the nearby roots and rock, the muddy ground bordering the trickle of a stream, lapped up by the hungry life lurking beneath the topsoil.

 

            Lena’s eyes snapped up as her mother strolled towards her, the tongue of fire trailing across the ground, leaving smouldering leaves and dirt in its wake as the acrid smell of fire filled the air. Eyes flashing green, yet oddly serene, as she met her mother’s look of disgust, mouth turned down and eyes roiling with scorn. 

 

            “No,” Lena murmured, her voice soft and rasping, “you’re grown arrogant, mother.”

 

            The ground erupted around them before Lillian could reply, her mouth opening right as dirt, geysers of water and mud exploded. Her knees buckled and the thread of power she had concentrated on keeping Kara bound was snipped, the human collapsing to the ground as the witch sprawled to her knees. Lena couldn’t stop the small laugh that fell from her chapped lips at the thought of how much her mother hated to mess her clothes, and couldn’t stop the feeling of satisfaction as roots snaked over Lillian, wrapping tightly around her, constricting her chest and putting her completely at Lena’s mercy.

 

            Only for a moment; Lena was under no illusion that it would hold her mother for any longer than that. But it was long enough to make her point. Lillian snarled her rage and strained, thicker roots latching on as water bubbled up around her, making her sink a few inches in the peat bog that had appeared out of nowhere, moss and dead foliage creating a swampy puddle beneath the witch. While her mother was momentarily distracted, Lena fetched Kara’s sword with an outstretched hand, pulling on the grains of ore used to forge the sword and hefting it as the hilt fell into her palm.

 

            With predatory grace, Lena circled her mother, giving her a sharp smile as she rounded in front of her, dropping the sword’s tip so it rasped along the floor before she wound up behind her again. And then Lena struck fast like a viper, hunching down as she cupped her mother’s chin and jerked her head back, steel cold and sharp - despite the nicked edge - as she placed it against her throat.

 

            “You underestimated me,” Lena mused, almost purring with glee, a manic gleam in her eyes, bright from pain and from fear for Kara’s life. “A considerable mistake on your behalf, do you not think so? You should’ve left when you had the chance.”

 

            “Do it. We both know you don’t have the courage to slit my throat, so do not make idle threats, my sweet.”

 

            Pausing, Lena faltered. How she wished she did have it in her - perhaps she might’ve if she ever would’ve crossed paths with her brother again, but that was done now - but as it was, she didn’t, and she hated how complacent her mother sounded, knowing the truth.

 

            “No,” Lena finally managed to spit out, even as she pressed the steel harder against her throat, leaving a thin red line. “I am no murderer. Not today; not for you. But you will go now and you will not return here.”

 

            “You don’t even know why I’ve come,” Lillian chuckled, a breathless edge betraying her uncertainty.

 

            Scoffing, Lena pulled the sword away, “no doubt it’s to spread some poisonous drivel about the council to make me side with your ilk at the next coven gathering.”

 

            “A warning,” Lillian bitingly replied as Lena slowly moved in front of her, taking in the haughty set of her mother’s jaw, regal even kneeling in a quagmire, dishevelled from their butting of heads. “But … I’m sure you don’t need my help. You’ve clearly picked sides.”

 

            “A … warning?” Lena slowly repeated, uncertain as she ignored the snide comment about her company.

 

            With a sneer, Lillian burnt her way through the thin roots, and Lena was hasty to let the rest slink away before her mother damaged the trees too much. Cursing the cold mud that stained her robes, Lillian climbed to her feet, towering inched over Lena as she grabbed her cheeks and loomed over her.

 

            “They are getting closer,” her mother breathed, squeezing her cheeks until Lena roughly jerked her head back. Eyes sliding to Kara’s prone figure, Lillian bared her teeth as she silently seethed. “You’d better hope your wards are secure and your faith is well-placed; I can see you don’t want my help.”

 

            Turning rigid at the warning, her stomach turning at the undercurrent of impending violence and dread, Lena scowled at her mother, working the muscles in her jaw as she cradled her sore arm against her stomach.

 

            “You’re right - I don’t want your help.”

 

            “Then I hope you have what it takes to do what you must. For your sake.”

 

            Lena let out a scornful sound of disdain, brushing past her mother as she brought the sword with her, unwilling to trust that it wouldn’t end up buried in her back, given her mother’s foul mood.

 

            “It’s time to unleash the monster, Lena,” Lillian called after her, “it’s only natural.”

 

            “If you haven’t crossed back over the threshold of my domain within the next five minutes, I will hunt you down, and I won’t be so lenient next time.”

 

            With a nonchalant laugh, her mother left swiftly, feigning indifference yet knowing that Lena was serious. She might’ve been able to out-match her daughter, but even Lena was aware there was a corrupted morsel of love between them, so twisted that she didn’t trust in it more than Lillian not going out of her way to kill her. That was all her mother would afford her. Even now, she only left because Lena had asserted her dominance in her own territory, a strength that her mother could respect. But Lena wasn’t mistaken - if Lillian wanted to kill her, she would’ve. A mere human wasn’t worth the effort though, and that was a small relief to Lena as she dropped the sword and fell to her knees at Kara’s side, her own burns ignored for the time being.

 

            “Kara,” she fiercely whispered, voice shaking with worry as her eyes smarted.

 

            She was gentle as she rolled the blonde over, her hands trembling as her eyes roamed over the damage. One cheek was scratched and already bruising, blood trickling down her throat, vivid against the pallid whiteness of her throat, and the scarlet stain spreading across her stomach. The latter worried Lena most of all, and as she cursed, pressing a hand against the shirt to stem the blood flow, Kara let out a soft groan, eyelashes fluttering.

 

            Eyes darting back to her face, Lena exhaled sharply as relief sagged her shoulders, leaving faint smears of red pressed against Kara’s cheek as she quickly cradled her cheek, her thumb lovingly stroking the apple of it. 

 

            “Kara, it’s me. It’s Lena.”

 

            “Lena,” Kara sighed, a furrow forming between her brows, “your mother …”

 

            “She’s gone.”

 

            Groaning again, teeth grit, Kara slowly shook her head, “she’s awful.”

 

            A choked laugh worked its way up Lena’s throat, coming out strangled and pained as she suppressed a shiver. “Mm, there’s no lost love there. She’s … somewhat lacking in the maternal area.”

 

            “Mm.”

 

            “I need to get you back to the cottage,” Lena coaxed her after a moment, “can you walk?”

 

            “My leg-”

 

            Nodding quickly, Lena swallowed, “it’s okay, I’ll carry you. Just try not to move, okay?”

 

            Kara let out a long sigh, her body sinking into the loamy earth as she nodded weakly, the slits of her eyes visible between her lids rolling restlessly as her fingers twitched nervously. Climbing to her feet, Lena brushed off the knees of her skirts and stepped back, a grave expression on her face as she squared her shoulders and motioned to lift Kara’s body. It rose slowly, even and gentle as the wind bore her weight.

 

            Fetching the sword, Lena set off quickly, compartmentalising her mind as she kept track of her mother’s movements within her realm, bound Kara to the air with threads of magic, and shoved her panic into another area as she hurried for home. She was more urgent than last time she’d whisked Kara back to her home, and the increasingly harmful wounds weren’t lost on Lena as she moved quickly, each rise and tree familiar to her as she traversed the path home.

 

            The miles slipped by quickly in her haste, each moment sending spikes of dread through her at the thought of Kara’s injuries, cursing her mother to the deepest hells for inflicting them, her fingers flexing and clenching reflexively the whole way until the little moss-covered cottage with wilting autumn flowers came into sight. The boughs obscured most of the sky in the clearing, but the air was tinted green and crisp with coldness as she stepped out of the cover of trunks and made for the weathered door. A glimpse of the grey sky through gaps showed her that it was already nearing noon, and with a sinking stomach, Lena feared that Kara would be forced to spend another night away from her own bed. An unwanted risk for both parties, but a grave necessity, given the circumstances.

 

            Ushering the girl inside, Lena set her down on the bed as slowly as possible, starting slightly at the small cry the jostling of the mattress elicited from Kara. She’d thought she’d long-since fallen into unconsciousness, and it only seized Lena with worry to know she was enduring the pain for longer than necessary. Crooking a finger at the door, which slammed itself shut, Lena quickly stripped Kara of her bag and coat, being careful with them, before she tore open her shirt.

 

            There was a gaping wound, pumping out blood now that the shirt had been peeled away from it, with a smaller puncture wound Lena could only assume came from her mother’s thumb. She blanched at the sight of it, her breath catching in her throat as she met Kara’s curious eyes. With a wan smile, Lena shrugged nonchalantly.

 

            “It’s not so bad,” she murmured unconvincingly, “I’ll patch you right up. Don’t move; I’m going to get you a tonic.”

 

            She swiftly rose to her feet and moved towards the shelves around the corner in the kitchen, finding the right bottle on the first go. A pain tonic. She took a swallow of the amber tincture herself to quell the hot pain in her arm and then reached for a milky blue one as an afterthought, before moving back to Kara’s side. Uncorking the amber one, she gave her a thin smile.

 

            “Here, it’ll help with the pain.”

 

            Holding it to her lips, she helped Kara drain the small vial and then uncapped the blue one. “This is for sleep.”

 

            “No,” Kara quietly refused, reaching out to stop Lena’s moving hand. “I’m fine.”

 

            “You really should sleep,” Lena anxiously told her, a severe look on her face as her heavy brows crumpled. “It’ll be better for you.”

 

            “I’m fine,” Kara ground out. “Stitch me up and then I’ll be good as new. I’m not weak , Lena, I don’t need to be put under to have you bandage me up.”

 

            With a quiet chuckle at her stubbornness, Lena gave her a crooked smile, “well, you do seem remarkably coherent. Don’t move until I tell you to though; you’re losing blood quickly. You may already pass out.”

 

            “And miss seeing your face?” Kara said, a doe-eyed look of adoration, even as her face spasmed with pain, “not a chance.”

 

            Rolling her eyes, Lena palmed the blue vial and moved to fetch a basin and some water. The pump worked itself as she fetched linens for bandages, heating the water with a pointed glance and dumping some of the rags in, before sprinkling in willow bark for pain relief, sprigs of rosemary to fend off inflammation and muscle pain, eucalyptus leaves for pain and swelling and feverfew, in case a fever set in. 

 

            Letting the rags soak, Lena fetched her kit of threads and needles, picking out a curved copped one and a spool of thread made from flax. Gathering all the essentials together, she moved back to Kara’s bedside, listening to her shallow breathing as she set herself up. Guilt clawed at Lena as she silently worked, doing her best to be careful as she washed the wound out with the herbal mixture and, watching as it washed away the blood, staining her sheets in the process.

 

            Her hands were soon dyed red as she made quick work of stitching it closed, Kara’s lips pressed into a flat line as her skin burned hot, sweat beading on her skin as her chest rose and fell with haggard breaths. Her pupils were contracted, the blue overwhelming and fearful as she watched Lena work with a dazed look of awe on her face.

 

            Shoulders hunched, nimble fingers creating uniform sutures that pulled the edges together, Lena didn’t speak until it was closed. Only then did she let out a pent up breath and straighten up, rolling sore shoulders as she brushed a lock of hair out of her face and fixed Kara with a tender look.

 

            “You’ll live,” she said with faint amusement, trying to make light of the situation so she didn’t dwell too much on the gut-wrenching sorrow and guilt.

 

            “Just as I expected,” Kara flippantly replied, feigning an air of arrogance that belied her sweet, humble nature. “You know, if you’d given me another moment, I think I would’ve had her. I was tricking her, see. Lulling her into a false sense of security before I made my attack.”

 

            Lena didn’t reply with a quip, but her expression noticeably soured as she swiped at a trickle of blood. Wiping off her hands with a damp cloth, she reached for a salve and spread a thick layer of it across the stitches, the smell of mint and pine bark giving the coppery air a fresh odour. 

 

            “You shouldn’t jest about that,” Lena chided her after a long moment, turning her back on Kara to fetch the fresh linens to bind the wound. “She’s dangerous. More dangerous than you can imagine. This was child’s play; fun.”

 

            “I did deduce that, actually,” Kara muttered, rubbing at her sore cheek with a petulant look on her face as she shifted up slightly. “I’m not as naïve as you may think.”

 

            “Aren’t you?”

 

            The words were a sigh and Lena shook her head as she turned back around, kneeling on the hard ground as Kara shed the ruined remains of her shirt and let Lena wrap the bandages around her, tying it in a tight knot as she finished. Looking up at her with sad eyes, Lena’s shoulders slumped and she reached up to touch the puncture wounds on Kara’s neck, already ringed with blue bruises, painfully tender.

 

            Giving her a small smile, Kara cradled Lena’s cheek in a hand, her face softening, despite the pain that marred it. “You blame yourself?”

 

            “How can I not?” Lena quietly exclaimed, her eyes swimming with tears, “you’re here for me. She’s my mother. She’s like me.”

 

            “Just because you’re both witches it doesn’t mean you’re the same. I know that; I know you. I’m not going to turn tail now, nor will I place the blame with the one who didn’t inflict them. I know the stories, perhaps better than you , and she is the root of the superstitions, I’m sure, but … that doesn’t change my feelings for you. I’m … quite enamoured with you, truth be told. This is nothing more than a few cuts and bruises.”

 

            Scoffing, Lena turned her head aside, jaw muscles working, “it’s more than that . You could’ve died. And for what? To visit me?”

 

            “Visiting you wasn’t the cause of this. Well, me visiting you wasn’t the cause at least.”

 

            “It’s not the first time you’ve been injured in my presence.”

 

            “No, indeed I expect it won’t be the last either,” Kara dryly replied. “Splinters are rife in this wood. Twisted ankles too. Food poisoning? Only if you let me pick the wrong mushrooms.”

 

            “Very funny.”

 

            Her relief was quickly giving way to annoyance, and Lena climbed to her feet, Kara’s hand dropping from her face, and set about cleaning the wounds on her neck and smearing them with the salve, before tugging Kara’s boots off. That sent a jolt of pain through her as the broken bone protested, and Kara let out a small whimper, reaching for her leg, before Lena splinted it and gave her a once over.

 

            “Let me make some tea,” she finally stated.

 

            Glad to have her hands busy as she boiled water in the kettle, using the fire this time, Lena shredded up lavender, chamomile and basil to boil in it for a potent pain-relieving tea to soothe them both and hopefully send Kara to sleep. Fight it she might, but it would be better for her to rest. 

 

            While waiting for the water to boil, she set about moving everything off the bed, and it was then that Kara noticed the singed fabric of Lena’s shirt sleeve, reaching out to grab her wrist in her slender fingers.

 

            “You’re hurt,” Kara murmured, the words coloured with surprise as she gently pulled Lena closer.

 

            Covering the burn with her other hand, Lena’s lips twisted with a bitter smile, “a lucky shot. Or perhaps luckier still that I escaped relatively unscathed.”

 

            “You need to treat it. Let me.”

 

            Drawing her down onto the bed, Kara shifted up further against the pillows and leant forward, wincing and stopping when Lena laid a hand against her shoulder. Their eyes met for a brief moment and Kara eased herself forward some more, reaching for the bowl of herb-infused water and leftover bandages. With deft fingers, she rolled up the sleeve to expose the redraw wound, blistered and weeping, and inhaled sharply.

 

            Lena was like a statue as Kara gently rinsed it and applied a generous amount of the salve to it, before loosely bandaging it, leaving room for it to breathe. Turning Lena’s hand over once she was done, Kara gently kissed her palm.

 

            “Thank you for saving me.”

 

            “I’ve missed you,” Lena sighed, setting the bowl on the ground and giving her a shy smile.

 

            The water in the kettle started boiling then and she assembled two cups of tea and fetched the blue sleeping potion again, handing it to Kara with a pointed look. Without further prompting, Kara grimly drained it and chased the bitterness of it down with her soothing tea.

 

            It wasn’t long before she was yawning, bleary-eyed as she struggled to stay awake while Lena slowly wiped the dirt from her hands and under her fingernails, humming a strange lullaby. But she could sense Kara fighting off the effects, aching to stay awake, to linger in consciousness to enjoy her presence, so Lena finished up, tucked a blanket around her and crawled onto the bed beside Kara. Curling herself around her, she nuzzled against her blonde hair, still holding leaves and dirt, the scent of the forest clinging to Kara as if she was a part of it. The thought was pleasing to Lena as she tenderly stroked Kara’s bare shoulder and listened to her slow breathing. 

 

            “Sleep now. I’ll be here when you wake up.”

Chapter Text

            Weak light seeped in through the warped windowpanes, a faint whistling sound as a bitter wind crept in through a few cracks in the mortar, and Kara woke groggily, a groaning falling from her lips as her heavy eyelids stayed shut. A rustle of movement caught her attention and her brow creased as she tried to turn towards the source of the sound. But her body screamed in protest and she let out a breathless gasp of pain.

 

            “Good morning, sleepyhead,” Lena’s quiet voice came from her left, and Kara managed to open her eyes to a narrow slit, looking up at the pale, blurry face above her.

 

            Lena put a cold hand to her forehead and Kara’s body went slack as she closed her eyes again and sank into the thin, lumpy mattress. She wondered if it was witchcraft that relaxed her so or Lena’s natural presence; either way, she didn’t care but was relieved to find them both safe inside the cottage. Her mind was slow, but she still remembered the brightness of pain, lingering fear making her skin prickle and a shiver run through her, eliciting a hiss of pain as her stitches pulled.

 

            “Ow.”

 

            “I’ll make you some tea.”

 

            Kara faintly hummed in agreement, trying her best to open her eyes fully to the green-tinted light of the dim cottage. A fire burned in the hearth, the smell of smoke heavy in the air and Kara’s eyes smarting slightly, but the room still lacked the ability to retain the warmth of the flames. She shivered again, her teeth clenching against the flaming agony, but she couldn’t help herself.

 

            “It’s cold.”

 

            Making a low sound of discontent at the back of her throat as she flicked her fingers at the pot and plucked herbs with absentminded distraction, Lena’s mouth thinned and her shoulders went taut, although Kara was blissfully ignorant to her tense stature.

 

            “Mm. A cold front has swept in from the coast. There isn’t much of a barrier between the open hills, except for the trees, of course. Most of them are already slipping into a long sleep for the winter.”

 

            “Snow?”

 

            “The birds haven’t told me yet,” Lena gravely replied, “but the weather is turning quickly. Winter isn’t far off … and I don’t like the look of the sky. A storm is brewing.”

 

            Dragging her eyes open, Kara’s cracked lips parted as she sucked in a breath, her chest aching as it expanded, the bandages straining and the stitches pinching, and she let out a dry cough, arching on the bed until they subsided.

 

            “Here. Drink,” Lena commanded, her voice fraught with worry as she pressed a wooden cup to Kara’s mouth.

 

            It was plain water, an earthy taste to it, fresh from the deep well Lena had pumped it from, and she greedily drained the whole thing, rivulets coursing down her cheeks and into her dirty hair. She wiped at her mouth with the back of her trembling hand and then looked at Lena, taking in the anxious look on her face and feeling a stab of her own panic.

 

            “There can’t be a storm; I need to get home. Today. Alex will be worried, and … that doesn’t bode well for you.”

 

            “Surely J’onn has told her that you were away on business. And a storm isn’t ominous - well … perhaps this one is. I really don’t like the look of the clouds.”

 

            Swallowing thickly, her mouth still parched, Kara tried to push herself up onto her elbows, but was stopped by Lena’s hand on her shoulder, guiding her back down. “Can’t you magic them away?”

 

            Mouth thinning, Lena’s eyes flickered with guilt, “I have some control over the air. Not enough to dissuade a building storm of this magnitude. If I’d seen it earlier, perhaps, but I didn’t want to be parted from you. Kara … you’re in no state to be travelling. Even tomorrow would be a risk, but in a storm? It’s folly.”

 

            “My sister-”

 

            “Kara.”

 

            The soft sigh of her name wearily falling from Lena’s lips gave her pause, and she slumped against the pillows with a wretched look on her face. “She can be rash. Over-protective to the point of overbearing. If she is even the slightest bit  suspicious-”

 

            “I will take care of it.”

 

            Her stomach lurched at the blunt, flatness of Lena’s words, her eyes dragging to her face, stony and pale in the dimness of the cottage. Kara’s mouth went dry with fear and her blue eyes revealed the sorrow inside her heart as she reached out for Lena’s unbandaged hand.

 

            “Please,” she said, the words coming out breathlessly strangled, so desperate that tears sprung to Kara’s eyes, “promise me you won’t hurt her. Flee and save yourself, but … she’s my sister. I love her, for all her faults.”

 

            A sad smile softened Lena’s face as she picked up Kara’s hand and pressed it to her cheek, “I didn’t mean I would hurt her. Only that I will make the journey through my forest an arduous one, as befuddling as the one you once took, and turn them back out. They’ll not be able to find me. Not a dozen witch hunters. Not a hundred. I have confidence in my wards and boundary spells; they have not fallen before.”

 

            They were both silent for a moment, the dull ache of Kara’s wounds a constant presence, but the cool touch of Lena’s cheek beneath her warm palm was a balm to the fever she was developing. Lena removed her hand after a moment and kissed her palm before she gave Kara a strained smile.

 

            “Stay. Please. I want to take care of you.”

 

            Kara swallowed thickly and nodded slowly, her head heavy and her body feeling uncharacteristically weak, as if her bones had been hollowed out and wouldn’t be able to bear her weight, let alone the long walk home.

 

            “Just for tonight.”

 

            Lena’s shoulders slumped and the smile grew a little. Kissing Kara’s knuckles, she carefully set her hand back down and stood up, finishing off making the tea. She let it steep for a few moments and gathered a bundle of herbs, tying them together with string and set it in a tarnished thurible, before carrying it over to Kara’s bedside. She hung the metal chain from a hook embedded in the wall and summoned a tongue of flame on her index finger, before lighting the herbs.

 

            Green smoke drifted out of the thurible as Lena shut it, allowing it to stream out of the holes, smelling of summer and sunlight. It was fresh and cut through the cold like a sharp knife, mingling until they were a chill combination of freshness. Despite the fact that it was cold, Lena threw open two windows too, ivy partially obscuring the view of the dark forest beyond as the curtains blew in the rush of air that sucked the warmth from the small space.

 

            Stoking the fire as much as she could, Lena finally poured out the strong tea, full of antiseptic plants and natural painkillers to take the edge off for Kara. The thurible helped as well, sweating out the toxins from her blood even as Kara shivered, cheeks turning rosy as beads of sweat dotted her forehead.

 

            “Drink it all,” Lena quietly cautioned, handing off her tea and helping prop Kara up.

 

            “How’s your arm,” Kara asked before taking a scalding sip and wincing as she swallowed.

 

            Lena’s cheeks dimpled as she grimaced, “not as bad as yours.”

 

            “Does it hurt?”

 

            Rolling her eyes, Lena pressed the cup to her lips to force her to drink again. “Fire is perhaps the cruellest of all the elements. Its bite is far worse than the others; I think I should be afraid if I were ever to be put on a pyre.”

 

            Swallowing another mouthful, Kara’s expression turned grave, even as her blue eyes flashed brightly, “I would never let that happen to you.”

 

            “No? Then you have a lot of faith in yourself to stop such a thing if it were ever to occur.”

 

            “I would set myself on it beside you if that were the case.”

 

            With a quiet scoff of laughter, not quite reaching Lena’s shadowed eyes, falling flat on Kara’s ears, she forced her to finish off the rest of the cup and refilled it from the heavy kettle, her back to Kara as she worked. Turning back around, she sat back down on the edge of the bed and forced her to drink again, the scalding tea burning down her throat and spreading warmth through Kara’s chest and stomach. Her shivers abated for the time being and Lena set the empty cup down before she peeled back the bandages.

 

            “I need to clean the wounds and apply a poultice. It would be better if you were unconscious for that.”

 

            “Would it really, or is it rather that I wouldn’t be able to say things that make you uncomfortable if I were asleep,” Kara lightly replied, a crooked smile on her face despite the aching look in her eyes.

 

            Pressing her lips together, Lena moved into the kitchen, her skirts swirling around her as she plucked fresh supplies off the shelves and gathered some of the discarded ones from the night before. Sitting back down with a bowl of herb water and a clean rag, her expression soured slightly with disgruntlement and some ire.

 

            “It doesn’t make me uncomfortable.”

 

            “But you don’t like it.”

 

            Sighing as she wrung out the rag, Lena gave her an exasperated look, “it makes me sad.”

 

            “Why ever so?”

 

            Setting the warm cloth, bathed in sweet-smelling herbs, dandelions and mint floating on the surface, Lena set it to the worst wound on Kara’s chest. The stitches were red, a faint puckering to the edges of them, and Lena was gentle as she wiped away the remnants of the salves she’d applied and remnants of dried blood. Still, Kara winced, but stared expectantly, waiting for an answer.

 

            “You would risk your life and I fear I’m undeserving of it. It would make me unbearably sad to watch you condemn yourself alongside me, and for what crime? You are innocent.”

 

            “As are you.”

 

            “They think I should be burned at the stake; you, however, they do not. Not yet. If you willingly joined me … I’m afraid I’d never forgive you. My ghost would haunt yours in the afterlife for your foolish pigheadedness.”

 

            Letting out a bark of laugher, Kara grinned impishly as Lena worked efficiently. She ground herbs together in a mortar and pestle, honey making the pulpy mess clump together, before she applied a salve and spread the poultice over the site of the wound, pressing a piece of clean linen against it, but otherwise leaving it unbandaged to air it out slightly.

 

            After that, she tutted and worried over the mottled bruises ringing Kara’s throat and the shallow scrapes on her face and hands, although there was little Lena could do for those except apply the salve to make them sting less. Kara was quiet as she watched Lena work, almost curious as she watched her plucks sprigs of herbs from stems with quick fingers, the way she grasped the pestle in a white-knuckled grip, mincing the ingredients. How she winced occasionally at the raw burn on her arm and drank as much tea as she’d fed Kara.

 

            Kara was drowsy by the time Lena peeled off her own bandage and turned to shed her soiled clothes, her hair wild and messy. The was an air of mystery about her in her silence, the foreignness of the witch striking Kara at odd moments. The milky paleness of Lena’s back, covered in faded scars were another element to her that aided in the enigma of who she was and what she could do. Kara remembered her yesterday, wielding the forest with a grey face, full of fear as she faced down her mother to save her life. A human’s life.

 

            “I brought you some spare clothes,” Kara gravelly replied after a long moment. “In my bag. You’re welcome to them.”

 

            Lena glanced over her shoulder and nodded, a distracted look on her face as she cleaned her hands in the hot bowl of herbs, washing away lingering dirt and blood beneath her fingernails. She pulled out the clothes a moment later, unfolding them with grateful care, and slipped on a brown skirt and a faded yellow shirt, shrunk enough to fit her. They were sturdily made, despite their age, and she gave Kara a faint smile and thanked her as she rolled up one sleeve and pasted on a salve and rebandaged the wound. From what Kara saw, it was blistered and weeping, and angry red against the pallid tone of Lena’s skin. She looked up at the ceiling and pretended she hadn’t seen it, guilt eating away at her.

 

            “Come here,” Kara softly called out, her voice groggy with sleep even as she demanded.

 

            Lena let out a huff of laughter, arching an eyebrow but obliging, sitting back down on the edge of the bed. Kara reached out with her scabbed hands to lace her fingers through Lena’s, a sleepy smile softening her face as she breathed in the heady scent of the smoke and let the tea and salves do their jobs.

 

            “You’re warm,” Lena murmured. 

 

            “I’m always warm when I’m with you. You make me feel warm. It’s … peaceful.”

 

            “I could never give you peace, Kara.”

 

            Her voice was achingly soft, full of frustration and yearning, as if she would do anything to give that to Kara. A life of peace, without fear, without persecution. They’d circled around the topic before, always coming to the same point of the unbearable thought of leaving, and their obstinate surety that both of them would sacrifice everything, including themselves, to save each other. 

 

            “You already do. Even now, as in pain as I am, I feel … content. Like I could live in this moment, in this day, for the rest of my life. I would be perfectly happy to.”

 

            “That,” Lena said with amusement, “would be the medicine talking.”

 

            “Kiss me.”

 

            “That could be the medicine too.”

 

            Kara let out a weak chuckle, her eyes already slipping closed as she smiled through the pleasantly numbed pain, “I assure you, this one is all me.”

 

            A smile spread across Lena’s face as she leant closer, her cool hand coming up to rest against Kara’s flushed cheek before she tenderly stroked sweaty strands of hair out of her face. She brought their lips an inch apart and lowered her voice as she stroked Kara’s face.

 

            “Sleep now.”

 

            Her lips brushed against Kara’s parted ones as she exhaled and relaxed, and then Lena started to quietly hum, her fingertips gently pressing into Kara’s temple as faint white light spread like veins beneath her pale skin. Lena drew back, keeping up the droning hum as she watched Kara’s lashes flutter and sleep take ahold of her. Keeping the sound going, she pulled her hand back and then pressed all of her fingertips along Kara’s collarbones, the hum changing pitch as the colour that pooled beneath Lena’s hands turned a buttery yellow, pooling through Kara’s chest.

 

            It was the most she could do for her, chasing away the chill and leaving her content, warm and in a deep sleep. After a few minutes of watching her, Lena rose off the bed and fanned the smoke in Kara’s direction, watching her inhale it, and gently mopped her sweating brow before tossing another log on the fire and grabbing her cloak.

 

            Slinging it around her shoulders, Lena burrowed into its voluminous warmth and eased the cottage door open on silent hinges. Her boots dug into the soft ground outside the door as she stepped out, the bitter cold immediately slamming into her as she shut the door behind her with a flick of her fingers. A frown cast a worried look to Lena’s face as she hunched her shoulders and walked through the forest, raindrops falling down, gently at first, until it grew heavier and filled the woods with the sound of it pattering off leaves and branches. It was silent other than that and the howling wind. Lonely.

 

            Lena had never thought of her home as lonely, not until Kara had come along and filled it with so much noise that the absence of it, especially in the preluding winter, was startling. The trees were half asleep and a veil of thin mist obscured Lena’s vision as she glided through the old trunks with sure-footed confidence. The cold quickly numbed her, a soothing balm to the ache in her arm, and as she walked through the haze of rain, the edge of her cloak splattered with mud and hanging heavily in its damp state, Lena peeled thin strips of bark from willow trees, chewing the green inside as it was, taking the edge off the pulsing headache behind her eyes.

 

            Making her way to the highest hillock beneath the trees, where a beech tree grew at the top, the tallest of any others in the forest. Its roots sprawled down the sides of the mound, creeping down to the slow-moving stream winding through mossy rocks, a small meadow of late-blooming weeds and wildflowers laying beyond it. 

 

            Stopping at the base of the beech tree, standing between a fork in the roots, which came up to her knees, Lena tipped her face up to the canopy, raindrops splattering her pale face, before she set her hands to the bark and heaved herself up. Her arm protested as the burn ached, but she pulled herself up to the lowest branch, boots scuffling at the bark, and then wound her way up through the reaching branches, up and around and over, until she neared the top. It was the highest point, the only point that could give her an unobstructed view of the surrounding area, of the sky and the mountains and the sea, to the little hamlets and the road where she might see a host of hunters coming for her.

 

            She broke through the wet foliage with a shower of water, her hood slipping back and rain hammering down on her head as it plastered her dark hair to her face. Squinting up at the sky, at the deep grey clouds, swirling and brewing into a black nexus right above her, her insides froze as she glowered at the sky, her lip curling slightly with a rueful look of bitter irritation. It was her mother, as she’d expected. Her mother’s affinity for air was greater than Lena’s, and a few eddying winds from Lillian would’ve been enough to coax the storm to life and sweep in off-shore.

 

            Pulling herself up, to the highest, flimsiest branch, a wind buffeting her as the tree leaned to-and-fro, Lena’s stomach swooping with the sensation, although she wasn’t particularly afraid of heights. Not when the trees would catch her, cradle her in their boughs and see her safely to earth, even in their sleepy state, they would sense the spike of panic and alarm she could shoot through the beech’s drowsy limbs. Still, she’d never been fond of flying through the skies; perhaps it was an aftereffect of her mother’s prowess at doing so, but it had never fit Lena’s skills all that well. She preferred her feet on the ground with trees overhead.

 

            But still, she stood on the highest branch and clung to the thinning twigs for balance, wilting, wet leaves smelling of rot and rain pressed into her face as she thrust a hand up. Rain pattered against her cupped palm as her trembling lips moved soundlessly, a wide-eyed look of desperation on her face as the rain ran down her sleeve and her cheeks stung from the cold. But after a few moments, the wind stilled slightly, the tree seeming to sway a little softer, the brewing storm clouds lightening to a deep grey instead of nearly black, and Lena let out a weary sigh as her thin control over the wind subdued it.

 

            Cutting the thread of her power, Lena was rigid in the tree, tensed with anticipation, her hand still held aloft as she waited with bated breath. The peal of thunder was a low, barely audible rumble as it first sounded, Lena tense and wary as she watched the clouds swirl overhead. She felt that she could reach out and touch them, the steel colour seeming just out of reach of her extended fingertips. And then the rumble grew louder, the sky snarling as it rose to a deafening, earth-shattering boom that made her jerk her hand to her chest, face pale and blotchy from the cold as her eyes widened at the darkening mass overhead as her efforts to dispel the storm were rebuffed by the magic that crackled through the clouds.

 

            Her lips parted and let out a huff of white as defeat washed over her, and Lena’s expression darkened for a moment before the sky seemed to shake, the thunder making her ears ring and her bones shake as she clenched her teeth and held onto the tree. And then a jagged bolt of red lightning arced towards her as if she’d summoned it herself, and Lena’s eyes went wide, the whites showing all around as her mouth fell open and she let go of the tree. She tipped backwards and fell right as the bolt struck the very tip.

 

            Electricity ran down the length of the trunk as gravity took ahold of Lena and she scrabbled at empty air where before there had been a branch to cling to, and then her shoulder struck the first branch, snapping it clean through as her weight turned out to be too much for the slenderness of the limb. Branches and leaves scraped at her cheeks as she fell through the canopy, fast and with no control, slamming into branches that grew increasingly thicker as she struggled to breathe, the air knocked from her lungs as the hair was torn from her scalp and her calf caught on a jagged stump of a thick branch. 

 

            She fell until she was only a dozen feet from the ground, tossed about like ragdoll for the whole descent, until she’d been turned over and watched as one of the thickest limbs of the beech tree rushed up to greet her stomach with a sickening punch as she fell right onto it. Heaving as the wind rushed from her lungs and her stomach protested profusely, Lena tasted sour bile in her mouth as she lay flopped on the thick branch, her body hanging limply over it as she drew in ragged breaths and increasingly heavy rain drummed onto her back.

 

            It took her a few moments to move again, reluctantly hoisting herself fully onto the branch and dragging herself towards the trunk to make the last dozen feet down to the ground, even as every inch of her body protested at moving. She’d be black and blue with bruises within the hour, soaked through and a little disoriented, and more than a little bit furious at her mother for being so spiteful. 

 

            Slithering down onto one of the gnarled, sprawling roots, Lena sat there for a moment, hunched over and breathing slowly as she tried to lull her mind into a trance to ignore the bone-deep weariness and throbbing pain, breathing in the smell of the rain and the lichen-covered bark as she kicked at ferns and let the raindrops soak into her messy hair. 

 

            It took her a quarter of an hour to gather herself, looking bright-eyed and rigid as she pushed herself to her feet and skidded down the side of the hill, striding into the tall grass as it tickled her scraped palms. The walk back to the cottage took her an hour in her limping state, irritation and pain making Lena glum as dragged herself inside, shutting the door behind her and coming to a stop.

 

            Kara was still fast asleep, as undisturbed as she’d been when Lena had left her there, the thurible smoking slightly, giving the room a faint hazy look as the sweet cloying of hers assaulted Lena’s nose. The blankets had been twisted around her legs, the poultice spotted through with blood as if she might’ve torn open one of the stitches writhing about, and there was a clammy sheen to her pale face that chased away any of Lena’s own worries.

 

            Limping across the room, Lena pressed the back of her dirty hand to Kara’s forehead, feeling the fever beneath the cold sweat, and grimaced. With a sigh, she shed her sodden cloak and moved a chair before the fire and set it around the back of it, before adding another log to the fire and sending a shower of sparks into the hearth to light it. Heat rushed out and hit her and Lena suppressed a shiver, running the damp sleeve of her shirt over her face, before she went to wash her hands beneath the faucet of the well.

 

            The water was icy and made her hands burn as they shook, before she filled a fresh basin and gently mopped at Kara’s brow. Fixing the blankets, Lena gently kissed Kara’s smooth brow and then lit a few tallow candles, filling the gloomy cottage with their weak light as what little darkness the day held vanished with the thickening storm clouds overhead. Peals of thunder had followed Lena the whole way home, and the occasional loud one made the foundations of the cottage shake as she set about making a thin broth with some of her winter rations.

 

            As a stew of potatoes and turnips, sprinkled with herbs and with a few meagre hunks of meat, simmered over the fire, Lena stripped off her clothes and set them before the fire too, wrapping a patched quilt around her shoulders as she sat before the fire and nursed a cup of tea from the kettle she reheated with the touch of one finger. She blew on the steam as she let it warm her palms, almost painful as the heat seared through the cuts and grazes, but it was mercifully numbing and radiated warmth from her stomach.

 

            Hunched over her cup with the comforting weight of the blanket swaddling her, Lena absentmindedly made the wisps of steam twist into fantastical shapes. A twisting dragon, a rocking boat and blooming flowers. It calmed her, the childish indulgence, reminding her of her lessons when she was younger and still grasping the basics of fine control. She was in the middle of weaving the steam into a fish swimming through the air, tongue lashing back and forth, when a voice startled her, tea almost spilling into her lap.

 

            “How are you doing that?”

 

            Lena smiled thinly and took a sip of her tea, twirling a finger and watching as the semblance of scales gave way to feathers, the body shortening and fins turning into wings. The small heron flapped over to Kara with lifelike flight and touched down onto the edge of the mattress, cocking its head to the side. Kara let out a small gasp and reached out to touch it with a fingertip. The steam dispersed, the fragile thread coaxing its hazy form together extinguished at the disturbance.

 

            “It’s a cheap parlour trick,” Lena murmured, her lips trembling slightly as she spoke.

 

            “It’s amazing,” Kara said with quiet awe, “it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It’s like … well, magic.”

 

            Despite the knot of worry that preoccupied her mind, Lena let out a small chuckle and her eyes slid sideways to look at Kara, who was propped up on her elbow, a look of childlike wonder on her face. Draining the rest of her tea, Lena refilled it and rose to fill a cup for Kara.

 

            “Your clothes …”

 

            “I ventured out to check on the storm. It was perhaps not the wisest decision.”

 

            Turning to face Kara, her damp hair waving down her back, Lena’s pale face was visible in the light of the fire and candles, scrapes and ghastly bruises standing out in sharp contrast. She gave Kara a grim smile and gestured towards her face with a scraped hand.

 

            “It’s superficial, I assure you.”

 

            “I fear you’d say that even in the gravest of circumstances. What happened?”

 

            A faint look of embarrassment washed over Lena’s face and she winced slightly, letting out a strained laugh, “ah, well, I may have fallen out of a tree. Well … through a tree. I must’ve hit every branch on the way down, as is my luck.”

 

            “Why were you in a tree?”

 

            “I told you, I was checking on the storm.”

 

            With a quiet groan, Kara closed her eyes, “you couldn’t just … I don’t know, wave a hand and ask whether it’s going to disappear?”

 

            Cocking her head to the side, Lena’s face softened with amusement, “you really have no idea what magic is really like, do you? It’s much more than wishful thinking brought to life; there are rules, laws, limitations. Honestly, it’s all nature. I can no more summon something out of thin air than you could, or ask for the secrets of the universe. We witches use what resources we’re given, or else I’d be living such a lavish life instead of on the brink of starvation. Yes, I may be able to coax the plants to yield a bigger harvest for me, prompt them to stay riper for longer, but plants wither in the winter and animals hibernate, and life moves on whether a witch starves in the woods.”

 

            “I’d like to know more, if you’d share it with me,” Kara shyly replied, “are there … laws about you telling me?”

 

            Quietly scoffing with laughter, Lena pressed a cup into Kara’s hand, “of course there are, but those laws are not limited to the potential of magic, only the looseness of my tongue.”

 

            “I’d like to get out of bed for a bit,” Kara said.

 

            Lena wasn’t too eager to let her up on her feet but relented with the strictest orders that Kara was to sit before the fire and not exert herself in any fashion. Sitting side by side, like they had times before, they drank tea and the cold whistled through the cottage and both of them felt perfectly content, if a little sore. Their injuries certainly added a damper to the day that was only rivalled by the wailing storm outside. 

 

            Stirring up the steam trailing from her fresh cup of tea, Lena formed it into a small figure of a woman, twirling slightly, cloak fanning out, and then leant over to fan Kara’s cup and summon a lean figure in a long coat. They were too small to have any distinguishing features, but it was apparent to both women that they were looking at little water vapour versions of themselves.

 

            “This is a simple control technique used to practice condensing water vapour. You can’t begin to understand how useful it is to be able to manipulate mist or even summon it. I’ve been hunted before, you know - not here, but we had to run when I was younger. Mist saved our lives; it’s invaluable to magical folk. This was one of the finer controlled sorts of magic I first learnt.”

 

            “Is it difficult?”

 

            “Not how you might think. It’s a very basic concept, but to keep a rigid shape, like bodies, can be difficult for extended periods. Water vapour will inevitably evaporate or condense into water, no matter how hard you try and keep its form. I could easily conjure more steam though, and then I’d be able to extend it.”

 

            Nodding, a look of intrigue and awe in her blue eyes, Kara took a sip of her tea, “tell me more.”

 

            Quietly laughing, although she was secretly pleased by Kara’s hunger for more knowledge, that it wouldn’t scare her off to see Lena display magic so nonchalantly in her presence. Of course, she’d seen Lena summon lightning, calling on the electricity that hummed unseen in the air, the fire that she conjured from the combustion of her magic sparking against the oxygen in the air, and the manipulation of the roots. That was all easy to explain.

 

            Listening with rapt attention, Kara’s cheeks were flushed pink and her eyes were bright behind a glaze of pain as she sipped the neverending cup of tea as Lena spoke, showing her how she could manipulate air currents to have things float to her, close by themselves, provide healing by sending tendrils of smoke down someone’s throat. How she could listen to the plants and the animals, communicate with them through the grasp of their physiology she had, sensing the shifting of muscles, bones and furs or feathers, how the electrical pulses through their body conveyed messages, their behaviours signalling something amiss. How she could suck the light from the room or blind someone just by refracting and bending rays of light, something that Kara was sceptical to believe because she couldn’t see any rays herself, even though Lena assured her they were there.

 

            There was so much to magic, things that seemed impossible to humans but were nothing more than the manipulation of nature and all natural things. What Lena could do was no more suspicious or immoral than the tide sweeping in and out or herbs growing with the innate ability to cure someone of their ailments if they ingested it correctly. 

 

            Filling two bowls with hearty portions of thin broth, Lena cut two slices of stale poppy bread and toasted them in the fire to dispel the idea that the bread was old, and they both angled their chairs towards the table and ate. They were both ravenous, having skipped multiple meals already, and Lena refilled their bowls again and shared a withering pear with Kara as they filled up on mint and elderberry tea and sat bloated and unable to move, cheeks rosy and eyes smarting from the smoky fire.

 

            “But do the birds actually talk?” Kara asked for the second time as Lena checked her wounds and cleaned them.

 

            “Yes, Kara, they speak. You just don’t have the ability to understand what they say.”

 

            “But I don’t just mean with their body language. They sing, they cry, they scream. Do you understand them?”

 

            With a soft sigh, Lena bit back a smile, “yes, I do. Just as I understand the trees when they rustle their leaves, or the moon when she changes her phases or pulls the sea.”

 

            “The moon controls the sea?” Kara exclaimed.

 

            She twisted in her seat as Lena turned her back to fetch something, and Lena turned back around with fresh bandages and pushed her back around so she didn’t strain herself. With a pointed look, Lena started binding the wounds across Kara’s abdomen with practised speed.

           

            “Yes, she does. She especially loves to sing.”

 

            “Oh.”

 

            They were silent for a moment until Lena helped Kara into a thin cotton shift, and once her blonde head popped through the collar, Kara’s eyebrows raised and she tilted her head to the side.

 

            “Do the stars sing?”

 

            “Yes.”

 

            “In which language?”

 

            Tweaking Kara’s chin with tender affection, Lena leant in, letting her lips brush Kara’s earlobe, her voice warm with amusement. “They sing in every language. Even the ones we don’t know.”

 

            “Hm. Well, that argues the point that you can’t really know if they are singing in every language, doesn’t it?”

 

            “Well, now who’s turning into a philosophical scientist. Perhaps we’ll make a believer of the supernatural yet.”

 

            Smiling slightly, Kara reached up to close a hand over Lena’s arm as the witch fixed the collar of the nightdress for her, and tenderly stroked the delicate bones of her wrist. “I believe in you, don’t I?”

 

            “I,” Lena said with a solemn look on her face, “am not quite as magnificent or magical as the moon.”

 

            “That’s a matter of opinion.”

 

            Smiling, a genuine smile that creased her eyes and dimpled her cheeks, Lena chuckled with fond amusement, “I think you’d find your opinion outnumbered by the rest of the world.”

 

            “It’s a good thing I’m not in the habit of listening to other’s opinions. As you well know, seeing as I’m here, with you, while they talk of how terrifying your kind is.”

 

            “I could be terrifying, if I wanted to be.”

 

            “So could I,” Kara countered, “as can any human. The capacity is in us all, although I’d have a harder time of it with nothing but a sword I can barely hold straight.”

 

            Laughing, Lena reached up and cradled Kara’s face, her eyes shining with adoration as they stood in silence, listening to the rain and the distant rumbling, the crackling of the fire and the gentle sound of their breathing. Then she leant in slowly and brushed her lips against Kara’s, her hands sliding down to her chest and pushed them both apart as Kara leant in too forcefully.

 

            “You’ll hurt yourself,” Lena warned her.

 

            “It hurts me more to not kiss you.”

 

            Snorting, Lena rolled her eyes and steered Kara towards the bed, “you’re incorrigible. Back to bed with you.”

           

            “I’m not quite finished with my questions.”

 

            “No, indeed I think you’d prattle on with your endless list even after I had long since died of old age. That’s how long your list of questions seems to be.”

 

            “Okay, well, answer this one for me then; if you can meddle with the brain chemistry of people, make them confused, make them not know you live here when they get here, and all of that. If you can destroy these memory cells in their minds … why haven’t your kind just wiped their memory of your presence. Or better yet just … made them believe you’re nice.”

 

            Smiling as Lena gripped her arms and helped lower her onto the mattress, she pulled the blankets up over Kara and sat on the edge of the bed, running a hand through her knotted hair.

 

            “That’s a very sensible question,” Lena allowed, dipping her chin in a small nod, “but … it’s temporary. We have tried it, in the past, and it’s a quick fix, but easily undone. You see, I can take the memories of people being here, but when they leave and someone tells them about the witch who leaves around these parts, they’ll have that new memory that I can’t remove. If we were to remove the memories of our entire existence, all of the tales and the truths, from an entire town, a passing tradesperson could bring with them terrible stories and kindle fear in them once more. Magic isn’t a continuous thing. I can light a fire but I can’t make the fire burn indefinitely with one flame. There are limits and necessary resources.”

 

            “But if I were to stay here with you, you could repeatedly erase my memory?”

 

            Lena’s mouth thinned with displeasure but she nodded again, “yes. As long as I could repeatedly administer the spell to modify memories, even feelings, it would last. But multiply that to continuously bewitch a village or a town. And then to account for travellers. It’s just not a feasible strategy and no guarantee that we’d be safe. Not to mention the physical and mental toll of endless hours of magic use.”

 

            “Hm. I see.”

 

            Kara lay her head back on the pillows and rested her hands on top of the blanket, over her stomach, the painful tautness to her face growing slack from the cups of herb-dosed tea that Lena had poured her. She was quiet for a few moments and Lena laughed.

 

            “Are you quite finished?”

 

            “For now, I think. My eyes don’t want to stay open; I imagine that’s your doing?”

 

            “Sleep is the fastest healer.”

 

            With a tired smile, her eyelids already drooping, Kara sighed, “and you need to sleep too. Come, we can keep each other warm. That storm is bitterly cold and I’m afraid you’ll go off wandering again while I’m unconscious and I’ll find you passed out with the sickness in the morning.” 

 

            Sighing heavily, Lena couldn’t help but smile as she rose to toss a few more logs on the fire and close the windows. It was still relatively early in the evening by that point, and the day would only grow colder. And she was exhausted, and aching everywhere from the blossoming mottled bruises marring her skin.

 

            Draping the thin quilt over Kara, Lena slipped under the blankets beside her and sent a light breeze tearing towards the candles and extinguishing them, leaving the cottage gloomy and still. Turning on her side, Lena stared at Kara’s silhouette and had the sensation of being watched. Smiling to herself, she reached out to stroke Kara’s face and then settled down, feeling an arm wrap around her.

 

            “Thank you,” Kara whispered, her voice thick with sleep and soft as a sigh. “Thank you for looking after me.”

 

            “It gives me purpose,” Lena murmured.

 

            “You give that to me too.”

 


 

            Deep in the woods, beneath a raging storm at the foothills of the far-off mountains, the witch and the human lay wrapped in each other’s arms as day bled into night and the cold seeped through the trees as a cold mist, oblivious to the bustling city, where a damp rain pervaded the streets and a witch lurked in the shadows of an alleyway all day, surprisingly dry. 

 

            It had taken Lillian all but a few hours to follow the faint scent of her daughter, mingled with the human girl’s own, to the door marked with Lena’s faded bloody thumbprint. No one had been home and she’d broken inside, moving through the rooms without leaving a trace of her presence, before she’d stepped back out and found a room at a boarding house for the night.

 

            The next day, she’d spent her morning outside, watching as a blonde woman left for work and a younger brunette stalked towards the palace. It didn’t take long for Lillian to track them both, one to a seamstress’ packed with pretty embroidered dresses and frock coats, and the other to the dungeons with a group of soldiers adorned with a flame sigil that could only signify the witch hunter division. A smile curled Lillian’s mouth as she made her way back to the house and laid in wait for the witch hunter to return that evening.

 

            Eliza was home first, slipping inside with a basket of mending shielded from the rain, and Alex an hour later, her stride confident and purposeful, an almost arrogant jut to her jaw as if she was sure of her own superiority over everyone else. Lillian sneered derisively as she watched the woman let herself in, debating whether to drag who she assumed to be the mother into it as well, or target the younger woman, a sister, perhaps. 

 

            She was plotting out the best way to handle it when the door opened ten minutes later and the younger woman stepped back out into the rain, tugging the hood of a cloak up over her hair as she shouted something inside and shut the door behind her. Lillian smiled to herself with satisfaction, letting the shield against the rain disintegrate so she would be appropriately wet in the deluge, and stepped out into the muddy street, following the hunter as she splashed through puddles.

 

            Lillian hung back an appropriate distance, not worried about losing track of Alex - even if she couldn’t see her, she’d be able to follow the chemical trail everyone exuded - and watched from down the street as the woman ducked into a tavern. It seemed an appropriate place to talk, almost fortuitous, and Lillian waited a few minutes to soak through properly before she walked through the wooden door and into the smoky interior.

 

            It was all old wood, scarred and sticky with ale and beer, the place already mostly full with the early crowd of drinkers and gamblers, a roaring fire making the large space slightly hazy with smoke. Looking around for her prey, Lillian spotted Alex at the bar and ambled towards her, leaning on the length of wood and waiting to be served.

 

            She glanced sideways at Alex and then cocked her head to the side, earning the attention of the hunter, who fixed her with her bold stare. They looked at each other for a long moment, neither of them saying anything until Alex’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. Lillian gave her a tight-lipped smile, aiming for an amicable air.

 

            “Do I know you?” Alex tightly asked.

 

            “I’m an acquaintance of your sister’s, I believe,” Lillian said with faint amusement, chuckling to herself.

 

            “You know Kara?”

 

            Dipping her chin in agreement, Lillian averted her eyes, looking at the barkeeper, “mhm. Is she here with you?”

 

            “No. Her boss has sent her to one of the westerly towns. She was supposed to be back today, but the weather has delayed her.”

 

            Humming disconcertingly, even as triumph welled in her chest, Lillian furrowed her brows in a mock look of confusion, “west? No, I saw her yesterday heading north.”

 

            “North?”

 

            “Most definitely north, I assure you. She was making for a small wooded area near the foothills of the mountains. I could only assume she was there on her bosses orders, as you said.”

 

            A flicker of worry ran across Alex’s face, and she didn’t even look up as the barkeeper set a flagon of ale down before her and swept up the coins on the counter. “North. Into the forest. You’re sure?”

 

            With a convincing look of concern, Lillian reached out and grasped Alex’s wrist in her hand, careful to hide her metal claws, and nodded slowly, “I am. There are things they say about the woods. A dangerous place. I did not think to warn Kara; it’s well known in these parts.”

 

            Alex blanched slightly and withdrew her strangely tingling hand from Lillian’s grasp, “the woods? No, she wouldn’t- she-”

 

            “Has your sister been acting strange lately? Is it possible that she’s been bewitched?”

 

            “Lower your voice,” Alex hissed, her face flushing darkly as she leant in close, her brown eyes wide with fear.

 

            With a wan smile, Lillian flagged down the barkeeper and asked for wine, before glancing sideways at Alex and taking the glass given to her. “Perhaps you would do well to check up on her. Ensure that nothing untoward has happened to your sister.”

 

            “Kara wouldn’t-”

 

            “Humans are so easily swayed by magic,” Lillian replied, almost simpering as she set a few coppers down on the counter. “Even when they do not know it.”

 

            Nodding to the confused and terrified hunter, Lillian smiled to herself and slunk off to a dark corner to watch the seed she’d planted unfold. All it would take was one to brave the forest, to fight off the nuisance of an enchantment that her daughter had set up to ward off non-magical intruders. Only one who had been granted protection from such magic, such protection that could be bestowed with the slightest touch, a gift to ensure that her daughter would rue the day she’d thought she could best Lillian.

 

            And as Alex rubbed at her tingling wrist with one hand, the untouched ale in the middle of the table of soldiers and friends alike, Lillian sat smug and self-satisfied and nursed her blackberry wine in the corner, sure that vengeance would be coming for Lena. Swifter and easier than what Lillian would’ve done to her, if she’d felt so inclined to waste her time. As it was, it would be considered a mercy. 

 

            The pyre, as horrible as it was to die by, was a paltry thing in comparison to what witches could do to each other. At least Lena would die with that comfort in her mind, killed by the hands of the humans that she so readily consorted with, snubbing the pain her kind had endured for centuries. The pyre was the least of what she deserved in Lillian’s eyes.

Chapter Text

            It was still raining in the morning when dawn broke, barely lifting the dim veil blanketing the forest as raindrops drummed a gentle rhythm on the roof of the cottage. Lena was the first to wake, as always, rising with the sun and the thrum of adrenaline that pounded in her veins, restless dreams of being found out quickly fading to peace as she looked at Kara’s face. Her colour had come back, the fever breaking, and she slept peacefully, lips parted, chest slowly rising and falling. 

 

            The worst of the storm had passed too, the thunder having drifted into faint rumbles near midnight, and Lena was struck with a pang of sadness that Kara would need to go home that day. It was a necessary precaution, one that she didn’t dare press for the sake of both of their safety, yet it saddened her, all the same, to know she’d be leaving again. It could be a week, a month, perhaps even longer before they could see each other again. The pain of that knowledge cut deep, but it was a sacrifice she was all too willing to make for Kara to be safe in the town.

 

            Lena hated the thought of her there, amidst the crowds of people with hatred in their hearts, who would drag her through the streets and set her on a pyre just for consorting with a witch. Kara risked her life as much as her own was risked, but Lena had rarely ventured into the city. To live amongst them made Lena feel terrified, like she’d been plunged into ice-cold water in the middle of winter, and yet, Kara would never leave her family behind. Lena wouldn’t ask it of her either, but it left a bitter taste in her mouth to know she couldn’t compete with a person who would torture a confession out of her to see her burn.

 

            In a sullen mood, Lena brooded around the kitchen, making a thin porridge as she fell into her habit of rationing, burning through too much of her winter stores with Kara’s visits, even if she usually came laden with gifts of food and preserves that would keep through the cold. Drinking two cups of tea to fill herself up, she finally roused Kara, a thin smile on her lips as she guided her up.

 

            “Good morning.”

 

            “Already?” Kara sighed, rubbing at her tired eyes.

 

            Softly laughing as she brushed Kara’s messy hair out of her face, Lena delicately kissed her cheek, “I’m afraid so.”

 

            Resting her forehead against Lena’s, Kara closed her eyes for a moment and drew in a deep breath, “I don’t want to go.”

 

            “I don’t want you to either, but we all do what we must. Come; I’ve made breakfast, and I’ll need to patch you up for the walk home. It’s still drizzling, I’m afraid, so it’s going to be rather miserable.”

 

            Groaning, Kara slowly eased herself up from the bed and climbed to her feet, one hand pressed against her abdomen. Lena held onto her arm and helped her up, holding her for a moment to make sure she had her balance, before guiding Kara over to a seat by the fire. It was a small thing, barely able to keep the cold at bay, and Kara sat as close to it as she could, hurriedly spooning the hot gruel into her mouth and washing it down with scalding tea until it warmed her through.

 

            Silently gathering herbs and warming a bowl of water, Lena cast furtive glances at her and felt the ache flare up in her chest as she took in the orange-limned profile of Kara. Setting down her medicinal things on a stool, Lena took Kara’s empty bowl and gave her a grim smile, before she set about unspooling the length of bandages and wiping off the poultice. Kara grimaced and paled occasionally at the pressure against the stitched injury, but she didn’t protest as Lena cleaned it out, perfuming the air with sweet-smelling herbs and flowers, before she smeared on a paste from a little jar and bound her up tightly.

 

            Pressing a palm to Kara’s cheek, she gave her a faint smile, “there. You’ll be better in no time.”

 

            “Of course I will.”

 

            “Promise me you’ll take care to keep it clean.”

 

            “I promise.”

 

            “And if it starts reddening with infection, you’ll go to J’onn and get him to send for me.”

 

            Standing up, tall and broad before Lena’s anxious form, Kara laid both hands on her shoulder, her mouth thinning at the weight on her broken foot. “I’ll be fine . J’onn should be able to heal me if anything is awry; I don’t want you coming into the town.”

 

            Frowning, Lena bit back a sharp retort and exhaled, deflating beneath Kara’s touch, “perhaps not, but if something is amiss …”

 

            “I’ll have him send word if it comes to it,” Kara gently relented.

 

            Nodding, Lena swallowed thickly and then turned away, “well … let’s get you dressed then.”

 

            She helped Kara into the same clothes she’d come in, darned moderately well and miraculously free from bloodstains, although there was nothing to be done for the missing brass buttons on her beloved coat, and then donned her cloak over her own clothes. Grasping the scabbard of the heavy sword and pulling Kara’s empty bag onto her shoulder, Lena fixed her with a long look.

 

            “You have everything you need?”

 

            “Yes. Except for the thing I can’t do without.”

 

            Expression softening, Lena gave her an aching look and reached out for Kara’s hand, “come, I’ll walk you to the outlying villages so we can have more time together.”

 

            “Is that truly why or do you not trust my ability to walk myself the whole way back alone,” Kara said with faint amusement.

 

            “That as well.”

 

            With a quiet laugh, Kara limped out of the cottage and Lena flicked a hand at the door to close it before she quickly stepped up beside Kara and wound an arm around her waist to prop her up better. Looking up with mournful green eyes, the corners of her mouth twitched with a ghost of a smile as she found Kara looking down at her with tenderness. Reaching up, Kara thumbed her cheek and then dropped her hand, limping forward towards the trees encircling the cottage.

 

            They made slow progress, branches creaking and groaning, rain steadily dripping, and the bracing cold air burning down their lungs as it turned their cheeks pink. Early morning frost lingered on the underbrush, melting as the morning warmed ever so slightly, and their breaths were a faint mist in the air as autumn stood on the cusp of winter. It wouldn’t be long before the first snow swept down from the mountains and dappled the countryside, and it troubled Lena more than usual as they moved through the silent trees. The whole forest seemed too still, standing on the edge of a precipice, waiting for something.

 

            The foreboding in the air made her skin crawl, but she kept her fears and intuition to herself as she guided Kara at a slow pace, over mounds and snaking roots, around trunks thrice wider than they were, down slopes and across muddy trickles of water, frosted at the edges and bitterly cold where the mud splattered Lena’s legs beneath her skirt. 

 

            A veil of fog lingered in the gulleys of the woods, and if not for Lena’s steadfast guidance, Kara thought she would’ve been turned around, as lost as the day her addled mind had sent her wandering for hours. But after a slow hour, they were finally at the treeline, weak sunlight tinting the world green as it pierced the sparser canopy. The smell of hay and withering apples was carried on the breeze as the final frantic harvests were tended to by farmers, while animals stole what they could. Kara exhaled with a sense of relief at the pale warmth offered by the sun as they stepped out of the cold forest to the chittering of birds as they fought each other for the last of the cherries clinging to branches.

 

            Skirting the village, sticking to muddy paths forged through fields as they followed the winding river, they didn’t speak, dwelling in the silence with their sadness and yearning for the moment to be prolonged for a while longer yet. It would take hours to get back to the town, but even that was a short time in comparison to how long they’d be separated again.

 

            The closer they drew to the walled town, the closer they came to the coastline, the flat plains where they’d first met stretching off to their left before it dropped away in the distance to rocky cliffs and the sea. It was too far for them to hear the crashing of waves and crying gulls, but the wind held the faintest notes of salt and Kara smiled as she looked down at Lena.

 

            “Do you remember when we first met?”

 

            Snorting, Lena glanced at her, “vividly. It’s not every day someone has confronted me with a sword . You’re lucky I was intrigued and irritated enough to not have enacted cruel revenge on you. Next time, I do advise not to do that to a witch.”

 

            Laughing, Kara gently bumped her shoulder, “I thought I was doomed. I don’t think I’ve ever been so terrified in my life, and yet … I couldn’t help but think it would’ve been a way to go. To have come face to face with such a mystery, so beautiful and wild. I’ll never forget how cold it was, how your lips were chapped.”

 

            “You looked frozen half to death,” Lena murmured. “I couldn’t comprehend what sort of desperation and love could lead someone to wander the cliffsides in mid-winter to find a witch .”

 

            “Do you now?”

 

            “Of course. I would do the same for you.”

 

            Kara wrinkled her nose endearingly as she pressed a quick kiss to Lena’s cheek, “and I for you. We should return there one day, to the cliffside. Preferably in summer. You could show me your stretch of the beach. Teach me about the properties of sea plants and animals.”

 

            “I’d like that. Preferably with no swords involved.”

 

            “I’ll be sure to leave it at home that day.”

 

            Reaching up to tuck a strand of hair caught by the wind behind Kara’s ear, Lena smiled thinly, “did you ever think you’d trust me after that day? That you’d seek me out again?”

 

            Lips pursed, the bruises and cuts on her face seeming livid in the sunlight as her blue eyes lay on the horizon, at the smudged outline of the town rising from the flatlands, Kara contemplated for a moment before slowly replying.

 

            “I’m not sure what I thought. As you said, I was desperate. Desperate enough to go all the way out there with the intention of cutting your head off - a foolish endeavour, I know. I wouldn’t have the stomach for it even if it wasn’t you - and I didn’t think further than Alex being hale and healthy again. And then we kissed and you knew my name. I felt as if you’d pierced my heart. I thought it was magic. I couldn’t stop thinking about you after that; I had to come back.”

 

            “I think I would’ve come to you if you hadn’t,” Lena admitted after a moment, “you made me awfully curious. It was a bleak winter and I thought of you often, how odd you were. I distracted myself away from the danger, but I think soon enough I would’ve walked into that town and found you, if only to see what you were really like.”

 

            “I’m glad you didn’t.”

 

            “Things would’ve been very different if I had,” Lena conceded.

 

            The wind buffeted them and Kara stumbled for a moment, Lena’s grip on her tight as she held her body against herself until she caught her balance. Despite the earliness of the day, lunch only just upon them, they were both exhausted from the melancholy that filled them at their impending goodbye. They both wanted to believe that it wouldn’t be long, that Kara would sneak away in a week’s time, but it would only be snatches of hours, neither of them wanting to rouse Alex’s suspicions with missing days so soon.

 

            They were still another hour of walking away from the town, at least with their pace as Kara hobbled along with her wounded leg, and Lena pulled them off the road and into the shade of a patch of trees to share the lunch she’d packed in Kara’s bag. It was nothing more than bread and cheese with soft plums, but it stopped Kara’s growling stomach and gave her a chance to rest her leg. It ached despite the lingering effects of Lena’s healing tea, held together by the threads of her magic that had knitted the break back together, and she was grateful to have Lena to lean on for most of the walk. She’d have to make the last leg by herself.

 

            Stepping back out onto the road, they walked in companionable silence, the weak sun shining overhead, and it was another twenty minutes of walking before the castle loomed over the town walls and the flow of farmers, merchants and soldiers started to congest on the main road leading towards the gated mass of shops, hovels, taverns and vendors. The smell even from that distance was enough for Lena to wrinkle her nose, too many unwashed bodies living in close quarters with too little greenery. All that stone and lifeless wood made her skin crawl with uneasiness, an ominous feel to the place, as if it had absorbed the foul thoughts and actions of those who dwelled inside.

 

            “I can go no further,” she eventually murmured, slowly unwinding her arm from around Kara’s waist.

 

            They stood in the middle of the rutted, muddy road, cold and dirty and bleached of colour in the wan light of late autumn. A defeated slump gave them weary statures as Lena handed over Kara’s sword and knapsack, using magic to buckle it to her waist and momentarily suspend its weight to make it easier for her to carry. 

 

            Looking at each other for a long moment, Lena reached for Kara’s hand and raised it, clutching it tightly in her pale fingers as she gave her an uneven smile, hesitant and strained. Carefully, Lena pressed a kiss to her palm and then pressed Kara’s hand to her face, her eyes closing as she allowed herself to be close and vulnerable to her for a moment longer.

 

            “I’ll come and visit soon,” Kara replied, her voice gravelly and low.

 

            “I’ll miss you all the same.”

 

            “Me too, but hold onto that thought.”

 

            With a fleeting smile, Lena opened her eyes and met her gaze, “I will. Dearly. I’ll cherish the very thought of it every moment until I feel you step foot into the woods.”

 

            An unreadable look darkened Kara’s face for a moment and she raked a hand through her hair, lips pressed together and her brows pinched into a v. “Thank you for taking care of me. I hope you didn’t do it out of misplaced guilt, but it was appreciated nonetheless.”

 

            “I didn’t do it out of misplaced guilt. That doesn’t mean I don’t blame myself, but I will always take care of you, Kara. It’s not something you need to thank me for; I would cut out pieces of myself to give them to you.”

 

            Quietly laughing, Kara leant forward and touched her forehead to Lena’s, reaching to cup the back of her head, fingers tangling in her dark locks, wild with leaves and flower petals and everything else she picked up in the woods. She breathed in the fresh smell of herbs and earth and the rain and felt the knot in her chest loosen slightly, even as she was overcome with a wave of homesickness to be parted from her.

 

            “I would never want you to do that though. You know that, don’t you? If anything were ever to happen to you, I swear, I’d-”

 

            “Do nothing,” Lena whispered, her voice holding a sharp edge of warning. “You’d do nothing foolish that could risk your safety. Or else I’d have to raze the entire countryside - every farm, village, town and port - to keep you safe.”

 

            “You know, when you talk like that, I almost believe you would,” Kara said, an odd note in her voice.

 

            Lena let out a quiet shudder of laughter, burying her face into Kara’s shoulders as she wrapped her arms around her and drew in a deep breath, buoying herself with hollow courage to let her go. She didn’t want to waste time arguing with Kara that she would do just that if something ever happened to her, that she’d ruin herself, become the monster the common folk feared she already was, even if it meant she’d no longer be worthy of Kara, just to know that she was safe. She thought it, but she didn’t say it, not wanting their parting to be on a sour note.

 

            Pulling back, Lena gave her a wide smile, genuine and warm, her eyes full of adoration, and Kara traced the side of her face before she leant in and kissed her softly, her lips warm and gentle as they swayed for a moment. Lena could’ve lived in that moment forever, the wind tangling their hair together as they held onto each other like anchors, but they parted a few seconds later.

 

            “Go on then, off with you,” Lena lightly nudged her, jerking her chin to the hazy town as she wrapped her arms around herself and gave Kara an uneven smile.

 

            Staring at her for a moment longer, Kara put her weight on her good leg, her blue eyes melancholy and yearning as she smiled almost nervously, looking worse for wear with her bruises and the exhausted circles beneath her eyes.

 

            “Be safe.”

 

            Lena nodded wordlessly and Kara stared for a moment longer before she set off for home, looking back once to find Lena still standing there. She was out of sight before Lena turned and left for home, both of them keenly feeling the distance stretch between them as they went in opposite directions.

 

            It was harder for Kara with her broken leg, still not fully healed, limping her way home as each step jarred the mending fracture, and it took her longer than she’d thought to reach the gates, slipping through with the flow of traffic moving into the town. Once inside, she felt the familiar oppressive feeling of being trapped, the air impure, the shouts too loud, the people too rough as they shouldered past her and jostled her about.

 

            Quickly taking a side street that was less crowded, she wove past familiar shop fronts and houses, the bakery and the taverns, the blacksmith and a smokehouse, all sorts of people mingling in one place as they bartered and traded, hawked their wares or sat behind counters cobbling shoes or sewing garments. Soldiers clanked past in their armour, swaggering with their arrogance as soldiers enjoyed a day off from the nearby port where they’d docked, street urchins running scams in the mouths of alleys while homeless drunks rummaged through rotting piles of food and refuse reeking behind stores.

 

            With a glum look on her face as she rejoined the normalcy of her daily life, leaving behind the peace and quiet, the freshness of the woods, the gentle company that was more fulfilling than any she could find in town, Kara made her way towards the bookshop. While she would’ve preferred to go home and fall into bed, sleeping off the dull pain that made her whole body ache, she needed to let J’onn know that she was back so he didn’t mistakenly lie to Alex about her whereabouts.

 

            Pushing open the door to the familiar interior, Kara exhaled at the scent of paper and leather, the warm glow of the lights a comfort to her as she shuffled inside, watching as J’onn appeared from around a shelf, arms laden with books and a mild look of surprise on his face, which quickly turned to shock.

 

            “What happened?”

 

            With a grim smile, Kara pushed behind the counter and slumped down onto a chair, the aged wood creaking beneath her weight as her whole body gave out and went slack. Running the back of her hand over her forehead, Kara sighed.

 

            “A surprise ambush by a witch. You’d be familiar with her.”

 

            “Ah, the old crone. I’ve caught glimpses of her lurking around here in my wards.”

 

            “She was coming to give her daughter a warning, or some advice - I don’t know. She didn’t take too kindly to finding a human consorting with Lena.”

 

            Pouring water from a glass decanter into a pewter tankard, J’onn held it out and crouched beside Kara’s chair, eyeing her as she took a sip. He pulled his little spectacles out of a pocket and perched them on the end of his nose, his forehead wrinkling with concern.

 

            “You’ve had a fever.”

 

            “I was well cared for,” Kara firmly assured him, “seeing as my heart was nearly gouged out of my chest … well, I could be in worse shape.”

 

            “You understand you’re trifling with dangerous business, yes?”

 

            “I knew that the moment I decided to go out there and cut Lena’s head off.”

 

            Nodding and retreating from the topic, J’onn climbed to his feet and rest a heavy hand on Kara’s shoulder for a moment before moving back to his stack of books. He crossed back into the shop front and started shelving the new books, his eyes darting back over to Kara every few seconds as she sipped the water.

 

            Once he was done, he leant on the length of wood separating both halves of the shop and gave her a grim look. “You’ll take a couple of days respite.”

 

            “No, I-”

 

            Holding up a hand, he cut her off, “I insist. Your sister has been asking for you as well; she was in here twice this morning looking for you. She seemed a bit troubled.”

 

            Cocking her head to the side, Kara eased herself out of the chair and limped forward, setting the empty cup down on the counter, “in what way?”

 

            “Concerned, perhaps.”

 

            Deflating, Kara nodded, “of course. I’ll go home for the rest of the day.”

 

            “That would be wise,” J’onn agreed, lips pressed together for a moment before he continued, “and … a few words of caution, if you’ll allow me; it might be wise to lie low for a bit. Not only to dissuade Alex, but if Lillian is still about … well, it would be in your best interests.”

 

            “I know.”

 

            She stayed a few more minutes, talking with J’onn, before stepping out into the damp day,  her clothes heavy as they hung off her and the need for a hot bath and to sit by the fire. It had been a long walk and the fog had chilled her to her core, making her stiff and aching, more so considering her injuries, and the sight of the familiar front door was welcoming.

 

            Fishing her key out, Kara unlocked it and stepped into the gloomy, narrow building, the door squeaking as it shut behind her. Pulling off her empty bag, Kara hung it on a hook inside the door and was just starting on the belt buckle to take off her sword, moving into the kitchen, when a dark figure rose from a chair turned towards the smouldering fire. Jumping, Kara let out a strained laugh as she pressed a hand to her heart, masking a wince as her stitches pulled, and gave Alex a wide smile.

 

            “You frightened me! What’re you doing sitting in here? Shouldn’t you be at work?”

 

            Her face was blurred in the dimness of the kitchen, her silhouette outlined in orange firelight, but there was a taut set to Alex’s shoulders as she faced Kara. “I have the day off; I’ve been waiting for you.”

 

            “I just got back,” Kara said with a weary sigh, “I just dropped a load of leather off with J’onn.”

 

            “Leather?” Alex slowly replied, “he told me you were bringing back thread.”

 

            Freezing momentarily, Kara stepped towards a chair and dragged it out, aiming for nonchalance as her stomach lurched. With a quick smile, she shrugged, “that too. It was a big delivery this time, what with books in higher demand when the cold hits.”

 

            Nodding, Alex slowly rounded the table, until Kara could see her pursed lips and the pucker between her brows, face pale with fear and worry. “Then, tell me, why did someone see you heading north towards the woods?”

 

            With a hesitant laugh, Kara smiled innocently, her eyebrows rising as her blue eyes widened, “the- the woods? No, they’re mistaken.” The lie sounded shaky and transparent even to her, but she couldn’t allow herself to admit to it. “It must’ve been someone else. From a distance, I suppose any blondes would look much the same.”

 

            “But they specifically said it was you. They knew you. Why would you be up near the woods?”

 

            “I wasn’t, I-”

 

            “Kara, you’re a terrible liar,” Alex cut off her flimsy attempt of an excuse. “What were you doing?”

 

            Swallowing, Kara opened and closed her mouth, moving forward into the circle of light cast by the glow of the fire as she scrambled for an excuse. “Nothing, I-”

 

            “What happened to you?” Alex asked, aghast as her eyes roamed over Kara’s bruised and battered face. Reaching out with trembling fingers, she touched the scabs on her cheek and the mottled bruise, before her fingers moved down to the dark smudges encircling her neck.

 

            “I’m fine,” Kara unevenly replied, her lips trembling as panic set in.

 

            She could feel a cold sweat break out on her body, her clammy hands curling into fists to stop their shaking as her mouth went dry. Closing her eyes, Kara shook her head, and then looked at Alex, giving her a pleading look.

 

            “You saw her, didn’t you?” Alex venomously replied, anger flashing in her dark eyes, “you crossed paths with her. She did this to you.”

 

            “I- what? No! No, I was … I was being clumsy. I fell and-”

 

            Gripping Kara’s upper arms, Alex rattled her as she leant in close, “where is she? Tell me where we can find her. You must.”

 

            Yanking herself out of Alex’s grasp, Kara looked at her with horror and wounded betrayal, taking a hobbling step backwards as the blood drained from her face. “And what will you do then, Alex?”

 

            Mouth thinning, Alex averted her gaze, “what I must.”

 

            “But don’t you think it’s wrong?” Kara exclaimed, a plea entering her voice, hoping to settle things before they went too far.

 

            “Wrong?” Alex barked, “my God, Kara, what has she done to you?”

 

            Flinching as her face crumpled into a frown, Kara felt anger flare up inside her. “Nothing! She has done nothing to me! Except for show kindness, and patience. Understanding .”

 

            Letting out a humourless laugh, Alex stared at her with incredulity, as if she couldn’t quite believe what she was hearing from Kara’s mouth. “You really have seen her. You let her do this to you and get into your mind. Now you find yourself spouting defences in her honour? You’ve been touched with the sickness.”

 

            “No! You don’t understand!”

 

            “Listen to me, Kara. She is not your friend. Whatever she’s put into your head, whatever she’s made you believe, it’s not true! You need to stay here,” Alex urgently said, scrambling for her coat, “you need to stay here, okay? Don’t leave, don’t speak to anyone.”

 

            “What are you going to do?” Kara coldly asked.

 

            Shoving her arms through the sleeves, Alex reached for a boot and jammed a foot into it, plopping onto the edge of the chair to lace it up, “I’m going to get the soldiers. We’ll find her and- and it’ll be undone when she’s-”

 

            “No,” Kara quietly replied, her voice so soft that it belied the anger and fear inside her as she slowly backed up. “No, I won’t let you do that.”

 

            “Kara-”

 

            Alex was still putting on the other boot as Kara suddenly turned tail and lunged for the front door, out the hallway and into the street before Alex could even lace it up. It was still relatively early in the afternoon, the sky pale in the narrow swathes of it overhead as adrenaline chased away Kara’s pain and urged her onwards.

 

            She didn’t make for the gates but for the bookshop, a one-track mind to get to Lena before the guards did. They knew her rough whereabouts, that she haunted the cliffsides and the woods, the lower foothills of the mountains and the rolling hills bordering the fields, but no one had ever been able to give an accurate location for where to find her, thanks to Lena’s ability to remove those memories, her wards a useful alarm to let her know if anyone entered and to turn them around and around until they were so lost that they would die before they stumbled upon her house. And now, Kara might’ve led them straight to her, and she wasn’t sure if the wards would be strong enough to hold off a dozen soldiers. Two dozen of them. 

 

            If there was one thing growing up in the town instilled, it was a sense of confidence that the witch hunters would never give up when they’d caught whispers of a witch in the area. They’d been looking for Lena for years, roaming the hills and the fields and the cliffsides in groups of two or four or even ten, sporadically and infrequently as they years went by. Yet, whenever there was a whisper, when the old rumours resurfaced, the hunters came out again, traipsing everywhere, even into the forest themselves, only to be turned out by a sad and scared Lena who didn’t want to hurt them. Who sent them home to husbands and wives and children, against her better judgement. 

 

            The last thing Kara would do was let them break upon her doorstep in a wave of fire and violence, so she ran as if her leg wasn’t broken and her skin hadn’t been stitched together. Blood soon spotted her dirty shirt and her skin was clammy and pale, a stricken look of fear giving her a sallow look as sweat shone on her forehead. It wasn’t a long trip to J’onn’s shop, for which she was thankful, half expecting to see Alex chasing after her with a group of her friends, and she barrelled through the front door with haste, rattling the warped windows in their frames as she slammed the door shut behind her.

 

            “J’onn!”

 

            He was already on his feet in the back of the shop, hurrying forward with a look of shock at her forceful entrance. “What-”

 

            “I need Comet. Quickly. Please. I need to go, I- Alex knows. Lena-”

 

            “Go.”

 

            He didn’t need to say anything else. Kara scrambled through the counter and through the side door, a staircase leading up to his home upstairs and a door leading out to the back alley, a small stable behind housing the horses of J’onn, the butcher and a merchant. She tore open the door to the stable and found the one with the bay gelding. Not even bothering to stop and saddle the horse, something she would soon regret but would waste too much time, Kara hauled herself up onto the horse’s back and put her heels to his flank.

 

            It knew her well enough from when she snuck it apples and sugar cubes, occasionally using it for the genuine trips to pick up supplies for J’onn from within and outside the town, and responded to her command, charging out of its stall and making for the door. J’onn was in the back doorway and they exchanged a nod as she trotted for the slip alleyway and slipped into the street.

 

            It wasn’t too crowded and she was able to weave through the throngs of people, making for the main road to the gate, which was overflowing with people. They quickly learned to dive out of her way as she lay low over the horse’s neck, urging him forward, hooves thundering on the mud and cobblestones. The guards’ shouts followed after her as she carved a path through the influx of people heading into the town, but she was too fast for them to do anything, already kicking up clods of wet mud as she came out on the main road.

 

            With a horse, it cut the time in half, but she still had to make frequent stops to make sure she didn’t run Comet into the ground. The horse’s sides were lathered with sweat, its nostrils flaring and she had to dismount multiple times, her inner things raw from chafing, and hobbled alongside the horse to give it a break, going as fast as she could. She let him drink his fill at the river and snatched rotting fruit from the ground to let him eat, soon urging him on again from his back. Her only comfort was that it would take the hunters some time to be rounded up and organised, horses saddled and armour donned, and despite the better stock they rode, they’d still need to take breaks. Kara was relentless in her pace but sure that she’d get there first without being run down by Alex.

 

            Dusk wasn’t far off when Kara came pounding up to the edge of the forest, having taken the most direct route there, careless about being caught. She could barely walk as she half-fell off Comet, leading him to a patch of grass caught in the deep shade of the forest as her legs shook and her heart pounded, each breath a rasping pain in her side. Her hair clung to her forehead in damp locks and Kara felt faint, black spots dancing across her eyes, as blood slowly seeped into the fabric of her shirt. She didn’t feel any of it.

 

            Plunging into the forest, she forged a path through the underbrush, making her way straight for the cottage, needing no compass to guide her to it. The light faded to twilight beneath the eaves, a green tint to the air as pollen swirled through shafts of dim light, and she fell down more than once, tripping over roots that sent bolts of pain up her broken leg. Her fingers were caked in mud from scrabbling back to her feet, hair snatched from her scalp and shallow cuts opened on her face as she pushed through brambles and fir trees. Kara would feel it all the next day, every cut, bruise and scrape, but she didn’t care, so long as they were far away by then.

 

            The woods soon rang with her shouts, Lena’s name tearing from her voice, hoarse and fraught with panic, and the sleeping trees seemed to stir, the stillness and silence of the woods so deafening that all Kara could hear was the sound of her ragged breaths and the sound of her own voice starting in her chest. She didn’t even realise she was crying; not until she came upon Lena tearing through the trees, a ghostly spectre cloaked in darkness, panic etched into her face, and Kara fell upon her with desperate relief.

 

            “We have to go,” Kara sobbed, pulling back and grasping Lena’s cheeks in her muddy hands, “we have to go now.”

 

            “What-”

 

            “She knows. They’re coming for you.”

 

            Stiffening beneath her touch, Lena grabbed Kara’s wrists in an iron grasp and forcibly pushed her away, “you need to get out of here. Go , Kara.”

 

            Swallowing a sob, Kara’s vision blurred as she reached for Lena, “you have to come with me. I have a horse. There’s no time to pack but-”

 

            Blanching, Lena’s eyes drifted behind Kara, making the blonde whirl around in a panic, hand going to her hilt as she stepped backwards, shielding Lena as her eyes narrowed to a squint to peer through the encroaching darkness.

 

            “They’re already here,” Lena murmured.

 

            As she spoke, the very air seemed to coalesce, thickening with the tangible feeling of magic. Before Kara’s very eyes, the low-lying fog thickened and rose and the shadows deepened, any lingering warmth in the air sucked from the woods as the temperature plummeted enough for Kara’s panicked exhale to linger in the air before her.

 

            “Come,” Kara croaked, “we need to leave now.”

 

            “I’ll be okay,” Lena whispered, her whole body stiff with tension as static energy crackled around her in a threatening aura. “The trees are on my side. They’ll defend me.”

 

            “I’m not leaving you,” Kara hissed.

 

            Lena started to protest and cut off at the sound of a distant shout. Both of them froze for a moment, tense and watchful, eyes scanning the immobile trees. It wasn’t a very large forest, but it was large enough, and Kara knew with the added help of Lena’s spells shrouding it, they would never be found in the middle of it all, but even that thought did nothing to dissuade the uneasiness that knotted her stomach. 

 

            The shout didn’t come again and they both shared a glance with each other, Lena’s face darkened with anger at the intrusion. That anger wasn’t directed at Kara, but guilt still nagged at her anyway and she tugged on Lena’s arm in a futile effort to get her to move. Covering Kara’s dirty hand with her own, Lena gave her a wan smile and swallowed thickly, her eyes softening as she looked at her, trying her best to put on a brave face, one that didn’t betray the doubt Lena had that her wards would hold.

 

            “Go to the cottage then,” Lena quietly ordered her, pressing a hand to Kara’s lower back to urge her on her way, “wait for me there.”

 

            “I won’t leave your side.”

 

            Biting back a curse, Lena’s mouth thinned as her face took on a pinched look of impatience, “I find your stubbornness not quite as endearing as usual at this particular moment.” Kara offered up nothing else and Lena sighed. “Very well then. Stay by my side; I will protect the both of us.”

 

            Pressing up beside her, Kara’s hand grasped the pommel of her sword in a white-knuckled grip, although she wasn’t sure how well she’d hold up against a host of castle-trained soldiers who hunted down witches for a living. Their best bet was Lena, and Kara knew that they’d never faced a proper witch before. The hunters might excel at dragging women from their beds in the middle of the night with ease, but they would find it a sight harder to oust Lena from her woods. If Kara couldn’t make her leave, she was afraid they’d have to burn down every tree standing to remove her.

 

            As it happened, it seemed like the hunters had the same idea in mind, hoping to smoke them out from amidst the trees, because a moment later, Lena let out a sharp cry of anguish, her mouth falling open as devastation flashed across her face, quickly to be replaced with anger. Kara’s head snapped around to look at her at the sound and stared with wide eyes as she watched the pupils of Lena’s eyes dilate until they nearly consumed her iris’, her lips pulled back in a silent snarl as her hands curled.

 

            “What? What is it?”

 

            “They’re burning the trees,” Lena snarled, a raw edge of pain in her voice.

 

            Kara’s stomach dropped, guilt and grief welling up in equal parts, knowing that it was her fault they were here and Lena was losing her friends. It would seem silly and trivial to others to describe trees as such, but Kara knew that they were sentient beings, that they spoke and moved and reacted, defended the witch who lived amongst them, who gently tended to them and conversed and healed them. It pained her to even think of the fires the hunters were setting, of the trees rustling with agitation as the bark was burned from their trunks, acrid smoke fouling the air.

 

            Closing her eyes, Lena clenched her hands, the tendons in her neck pulling taut, and with a quick movement, she thrust her hands forward, a phantom wind swirling around them as it billowed her cloak out and gave her an ethereal aura about her. Fog spiralled away as a tunnel was forged through it and the breath caught in Kara’s throat. 

 

            It was a long, tense few seconds before the first gut-wrenching scream, muffled by the distance but no less blood-curdling, faintly drifted to their ears. Kara paled slightly, looking at Lena with a questioning look in her eyes, wondering what she was doing to them. It frightened her, it made her fear for Alex, but she couldn’t find an ounce of sympathy within her as Lena defended what was hers.

 

            Kara stood there, watching and waiting, so tense that her whole body was brimming with nervous energy as she restlessly anticipated something . But nothing stirred nearby, the screams too far away and heading in the wrong direction as the hunters fled the fires they’d started and gave into the fog in their minds, luring them astray. And blinking as she came back to herself, breathing heavily, Lena thrust a hand skywards and sharply flicked her wrist, her sleeve falling back to reveal the livid burn of her forearm as her pale fingers crooked and pulled downwards.

 

            Within minutes, torrential rain was pounding down on them, ice-cold water sliding down the collar of Kara’s coat and making her shiver. Lena seemed unaffected as she lowered her arm, her brows furrowed over her eyes as her hair was quickly soaked. Even with the trees providing shelter, the rain hammered through the leaves and branches and Kara crossed her arms over her chest, too scared to do anything but stand there and shiver in silence, awaiting the dawn or until the hunters were ousted and sent running for home.

 

            And then came a shout, so familiar that it startled her for a moment, deep in the cover of the trees, far from the soldiers losing their minds. Her name. It was said with desperate fear, ragged as it barely cut through the sound of the rain, and Kara’s heart lurched in her chest.

 

            “Alex,” she breathlessly murmured, on alert as she stepped forward.

 

            Lena’s hand shot out and grasped her shoulder and Kara turned to look at her, surprise on her gentle face. Shaking her head, Lena’s mouth was a flat line and her touch was firm, “don’t.”

 

            “But it’s Alex,” Kara said, as if that was all the explanation she needed.

 

            “Something’s wrong,” Lena cautioned, “the magic isn’t affecting her. She shouldn’t be this close.”

 

            Detaching herself from Lena’s touch, Kara reached up and gently cupped her wet cheek, giving her a sweet smile as her eyes and nose crinkled, “all will be well. I’ll make her leave.”

 

            “Kara-”

 

            Before Lena could stop her, her hand reaching for thin air, Kara was gone and Lena’s attention was momentarily snagged by the tug of the wards against her web of power. Cursing quietly to the rain, Lena scowled as she watched Kara take off, her limp giving her an uneven gait as she moved off towards the sound of Alex’s shouts. Lena cursed her too for calling Kara away and ground her teeth as she sent her magic burrowing into the ground, tunnelling through the roots until she reached the feet of the soldiers, before the earth erupted beneath them.

 

            While Lena worked her magic, ensnaring men and women with the help of the trees, fog leaving them searching blindly, magic addling their brains, Kara staggered up mounds, her hand brushing trunks, silent apologies sent to them as she fought for balance. A hacking cough left her breathless as she stumbled onwards, a lancing pain in her chest that made Kara wince with every step, and yet she pressed on, teeth grit with determination as Alex’s voice drew closer. 

 

            She came upon her in a staggering mess, muddy and soaking wet, her teeth chattering and a sickly pallor to her skin as orange firelight illuminated her. Alex stood at the top of a small ravine, a lit branch held aloft, while Kara swayed unsteadily below her. Neither of them spoke as they stared at each other for a long moment, tense and uncertain. Each of them was not the person the other had thought they were a day ago, and Kara’s resolve wavered first as Alex crouched and jumped down into the small gully, splashing muddy water as her expression darkened.

 

            Bottom lip wobbling, Kara let out a rough sob, lurching forward with her hands held out, grabbing the straps of the leather cuirass her sister wore as her knees buckled. “Please,” she begged as Alex slowly lowered the torch, steadying Kara by the elbow, “please don’t do this. You can still turn around. Please leave.”

 

            “What has she done to you?” Alex whispered, her voice agonised as her face crumpled, “I can help you. If you come with me now, there’s still hope. They won’t hurt you. Please, Kara.”

 

            “No, no,” Kara sobbed, her forehead resting against the wet leather, “I can’t leave her, Alex. I can’t leave her. This is all my fault.”

 

            “No, it’s not. Come away now, Kara. Let me take you back with me. They’ll take care of her; you won’t have to see it.”

 

            Flinching as if she’d been struck, Kara straightened up, aghast as she took a stumbling step backwards, “you’ll let them kill her?”

 

            Backing up slowly, Kara’s lips trembled as Alex sighed heavily, giving her a pleading look for her to understand, “it’s the way it has to be.”

 

            “I won’t let you,” Kara firmly replied, jerking her chin forward as she squared her shoulders.

 

            Sighing, Alex shook her head, “there’s nothing you can do to stop it now.”

 

            Drawing in a long, shuddering breath, her chest expanding as she searched for strength, Kara reached for the pommel of her sword, swallowing thickly as she drew it in one long, rasping movement. Holding it out before her, looking terrified as her hand trembled under the weight of it, Kara wrapped her other hand around the hilt and levelled it at Alex across the gap between them.

 

            “You’ll have to go through me.”

 

            “Don’t be so ridiculous,” Alex snapped, her patience wearing thin, “I’m not going to fight you over a witch - and you’re not going to fight me too. Now, stand aside.”

 

            Alex made to step around her and Kara quickly shadowed the movement, holding the sword steady with a blank look on her face. With a low sound of frustration, Alex scowled, giving her a withering look.

 

            “Kara-”

 

            “I mean it, Alex,” Kara warned her, “don’t test me. I don’t want to hurt you, but I won’t let you hurt her.”

 

            “But … she’s nothing to you!”

 

            “She’s everything,” Kara snapped, anger flushing her cheeks, “if you weren’t so blinded by your hatred, perhaps you would’ve known that. Do you think I crossed paths with her yesterday? That I stumbled across her, when so many have failed to walk away with the memory of her? No. I know her as if she was a part of me; I think I know her better than I know you.

 

            Spluttering, Alex looked taken aback by the confession as the torch was lowered again, and she cocked her head to the side, bewilderment clouding her features. “I don’t understand.”

 

            “I don’t expect you too, but please … for the sake of my own happiness, don’t do this.”

 

            “I don’t have a choice,” Alex shouted, stamping a foot in frustration.

 

            “Then neither do I.”

 

            Alex moved again, feinting to Kara’s right before she lunged left and grabbed Kara’s arm. The sword was forced upwards between them, Alex’s fingers biting into Kara’s wrist as she dropped the torch, which guttered in the puddle it landed in. Her dark eyes were mournful and pleading as she held Kara’s weight, stopping her from keeling over.  Righting her, Alex took a few steps back, giving her some space as Kara shook out her hand, the tip of the sword gouging a hole in the soft earth. Drawing in a ragged breath, Kara brushed sodden hair out of her face and swallowed.

 

            “I don’t want to hurt you!”

 

            Letting out a snort of laughter, Alex gave her a pained look, “I don’t want to hurt you.”

 

            “Enough.”

 

            The voice came from behind Kara and she whirled around, blinking in surprise as Lena seemed to materialise out of shadows. She was as wet as both of them and no less tired, a haggard look to her face as her eyes trained on Alex. With a dismissive wave of her hand, she extinguished the struggling flame of the torch and white smoke swirled in the wind as they were plunged into dim twilight.

 

            “Come away, Kara,” Alex anxiously ordered her.

 

            “Don’t move a step closer,” Kara warned.

 

            With a cold laugh, Lena cocked her head to the side, amusement flashing across her face, “you reek of my mother.”

 

            Alex’s brow furrowed and Lena glanced at Kara, who stood between them. Her expression softened with pity and her shoulders sagged and Lena let out a defeated sigh.

 

            “Kara, come to me,” she softly called out, a small smile on her face as she held out a hand.

 

            The trusting way Kara backed up to her broke Lena’s heart a little, and the moment her fingertips brushed the coarse back of Kara’s wet jacket, Lena stepped forward to pull Kara flush against her. Kara stumbled slightly, her weight pressing against Lena, and Lena’s lips brushed against her earlobe as she reached up and delicately touched a finger to Kara’s temple.

 

            “Forgive me.”

 

            She fell like a sack of stones, so heavy that it was all Lena could do to bear her weight, easing her down to the forest floor as gently as possible, until she cradled Kara’s limp form in her lap, the sword clattering onto the carpet of soggy leaves as Alex let out a cry of anguish. Taking a few hurried steps across the distance separating them, her eyes fell to the sword abandoned on the floor and Lena let out a huff of laughter, sending the sword hilt-deep into the rocky side of the ravine with a wave of her hand at the slightest inclination of Alex’s thoughts.

 

            “I wouldn’t let myself be the cause of a rift between you two,” Lena haughtily explained, not looking at Alex as she fixed her eyes on Kara’s unconscious form.

 

            Her eyelashes fluttered, wet and spidery as water slid down her cheeks, and her pink lips were parted as she breathed shallowly. Pressing a hand to the blooming bloodstains on her shirt, Lena’s brow wrinkled with concern, feeling time slip through her fingers, and she looked up at Alex, climbing to her feet with a weightless Kara cradled in her arms.

 

            “Let us be on our way.”

Chapter Text

            Lena led the way back through the woods, confident and serene as Kara’s unconscious form followed behind, floating along in a way that was becoming uncomfortably all too familiar to Lena, while Alex hurried along, tense with anger and fear. Shouts echoed through the trees and the acrid smell of smoke drifted on the slight breeze as the trees grew restless and angry, fuelled on by Lena’s tangible anger too. Rigid and steadfast to her fate, Lena marched onwards, occasionally murmuring to the trees as her fingertips caressed their trunks, soothing their uneasy spirits, while her eyes stayed focused ahead, sad and wide in her pinched face.

 

            The forest was soon dark enough that they couldn’t see an inch before their own noses, yet Lena walked onwards with confidence, every inch of the sprawling path of trees and earth and weeds and rocks known to her as intimately as every nook in her small cottage. But Alex didn’t fare quite as well, cursing as she tripped over crawling roots and walked into branches that were suddenly low-hanging, the forest vengeful and livid in its own way, and Lena sighed before curling her fingers and drawing on the beams of moonlight to coalesce into a glowing white orb.

 

            Gently tossing it up into the air, it hung suspended, illuminating a wide circle of trees and deep shadows, no less hateful towards the intruder and no more placated for Lena’s presence amidst them, Lena walked onwards as the small orb floated along. She ignored the sharply indrawn breath and the sound of a sword cutting through the air, Alex’s fear at the casual display of magic startling her into a defensive position, and carried on walking with Kara floating alongside her. Lena knew Alex wouldn’t let her leave, or leave Kara in her presence. If only she knew Kara had spent the night in her bed and peppered her skin with kisses; the knowledge was its own little victory to Lena as her lips twitched with a faint smile and she walked on.

 

            If not for the ball of light, Lena didn’t think they would’ve been able to see where the forest ended and the countryside began, although she surely would’ve felt it, the shedding of the protective layers of wards and boundary spells falling away like a cloak, leaving her exposed and vulnerable. As it was, they stepped through the treeline and she rounded on Alex, an expectant look on her face.

 

            “Well?”

 

            “The horses are this way,” Alex nodded towards the south.

 

            Nodding in silent acceptance, Lena kept up a steady pace, unhurried yet not dragging her feet, casting worried glances at Kara, who was still asleep under the effects of Lena’s magic. She hoped that when she woke she’d be able to forgive Lena for making this decision for her, but there was no other option, aside from hurting Kara unforgivably by Alex forcing Lena’s hand. It was better this way. Easier for everyone.

 

            Soon, the tiny pinpricks of orange in the distance became warm halos of burning torches, staked into the ground and held by the few soldiers left behind to keep the horses in check, leaning against a wagon with an iron cage set on the back as they chatted away, an undercurrent of unease to their quiet conversation as they waited. No doubt they’d heard the screams and the shouts, seen the lightning and could smell the faint tang of smoke on the air.

 

            “Open the cage,” Alex roughly ordered, brushing past Lena with a pale look of unrest of her face.

 

            The soldiers scrambled to attention, their torches lowering slightly at the sight of Lena, their eyes widening at the glowing ball of light, easily squashed as Lena snuffed out the magic. She knew she looked feral and hollow in the orange light of the flames, too many years spent scraping by giving her a perpetually sharp look that was only made more unsettling by her untamed hair and evidence of living in the woods. 

 

            The cage door creaked open on old hinges and while everyone was occupied, Lena crooked a finger to drift Kara closer. Looking at her face, so peaceful that Lena imagined she was asleep, asleep in her bed like the night before, nothing amiss, she felt her chest cave in with pain and guilt, knowing it was a kindness in reality.

 

            “I’m sorry,” Lena whispered, allowing herself the briefest moment to trace her fingertips over Kara’s cheek, wishing she could kiss her but with more pressing matters to attend to as her fingers ghosted up to her temple. “But I’ll remember for the both of us.”

 

            Lena was glad she was unconscious, unable to resist, not looking at her as those blue eyes clouded with confusion, a faraway look as the spell took hold, rewriting memories and leaving her with that blank stare. It was a mercy for them both to not see it happening and Lena swallowed painfully, unwilling to cry now, as she felt the small electrical pulses of Kara’s mind and let the magic flow.

 

            “Hey! Get away from her!”

 

            Dropping her hand at Alex’s bark of anger, Lena slowly turned to look at her and blinked once, unbothered by anything she could say or do as she wallowed in the misery of her own making, infinitely worse than what a human could do to her. With a quiet scoff of laughter, Lena took a measured step away from Kara and watched as Alex stormed towards her.

 

            “If you think I would do your sister any harm, you’re sorely mistaken.”

 

            “Like I’d believe you,” Alex scornfully replied.

 

            Clicking her tongue, Lena’s mouth twitched with a smile, watching the witch hunter raise a pair of shackles, the heavy chains clinking as they shifted. Holding her hands out before her, wrists bared to the night air, Lena’s eyes drilled into Alex’s head as she let her clap the irons on her.

 

            “You can thank me for saving her afterwards,” Lena whispered, her voice light with amusement.

 

            “There won’t be an afterwards for you.”

 

            “All the same, I’ll accept your gratitude.”

 

            With a scathing sound at the back of her throat, Alex tugged on the shackles, ensuring the manacles were securely locked, metal biting into Lena’s skin as she stood stoically before her, and let her go, brown eyes bright with triumph as Lena stumbled a few steps.

 

            “I don’t owe you anything.”

 

            “All the same.”

 

            Lena’s nonchalance seemed to bother her and Alex grabbed the chains and roughly pulled her towards the cage, setting a brisk pace that had Lena stumbling to keep up. The other soldiers hefted her into the back of the wagon, old bloodstains on the worn wood, and Lena allowed them to chain the manacles to a ring embedded in the floor. 

 

            She didn’t expect Alex to allow Kara anywhere near her and wasn’t surprised as Alex ordered the other soldiers to grab Kara under her arms and feet, before she turned to Lena, her face bathed in orange as she looked at her between the bars. Rising to her feet, Lena gripped the iron in a white-knuckled grasp, staring down at her from her height.

 

            “Let her go.”

 

            Dipping her head in acknowledgement, Lena’s eyes darted over to Kara’s floating form and let the threads go, watching her body sag between the soldiers. Her eyes didn’t stray from Kara as they managed to get her over the saddle of a horse, splayed across the long neck as Alex slung herself over the beast’s back and gripped the reins, keeping her sister safe in the circle of her embrace.

 

            She shot Lena a filthy look and shifted uneasily before her attention was snagged by a few soldiers stumbling out of the woods. Only a fraction of those that had entered, trembling all over and white as ghosts as they tripped over themselves, shaking off the woollen feeling of magic that clouded their heads. Shaken by their disoriented trip through the woods, shouts still drifting from out from within the dark wall of trees, they cast Lena terrified looks, and she knew that for perhaps all of them, it was their first real encounter with magic.

 

            Hauling themselves up onto their grazing horses, spitting at the ground and hurling curses at her as she smiled faintly, the small ensemble made ready to leave. They left dozens of horses behind for the other unfortunate souls to find their own way out and back to the castle, and Lena sank down onto the hard floor of the wagon as it jerked into motion and managed to find every dip and bump on the road back. 

 

            Leaning against the metal bars as they dug into her shoulders, Lena felt for the locking mechanism of her manacles and pushed the metal until they came loose, falling into her lap as she rubbed her wrists. Her eyes were heavy and stinging and she sagged in her cage, head tipped back to look up at the cloudy sky, the hidden moon faintly illuminating the whorls in them, and she breathed in the smell of rain and leather and horses as she let the knot inside her chest unwind. She’d been afraid of this moment for so long that it was a relief, in some ways, that it was finally here and soon to be over.

 

            The journey back towards the castle felt like an eternity, although it was the quickest one Lena had ever taken, the wagon rattling along as the horses heaved it behind them, soldiers surrounding the little cage as they kept a steady formation, the sound of hooves a chorus of thunder. Clouds of dirt made Lena’s throat dry and she spent the whole trip trying to catch glimpses of Kara, lolling against Alex’s chest as her sister kept her balanced, a sharp look on her face as a tense set to her shoulders. Lena pitied her, despite her anger towards her.

 

            Letting herself be lulled by the rhythmic jostling of the wagon, Lena sighed and tried to count the stars between gaps in the clouds, finding comfort in the sight of them, something that usually only happened on her trips beyond her forest at nightfall for rituals or tasks that could only be done at the moon’s highest peak. It was a rarity, and despite how bad things were looking, it was a small thing that made her heart ache a little less as she listened to them sing.

 

            It wasn’t lost on her that she could’ve escaped, already freed from her shackles, with the cage’s lock just as easily picked, the soldiers a mere afterthought to deal with. But then there was Kara. Lena didn’t know what they’d do to her, what she’d remember, if she’d be safe. To flee and leave her in her sister’s hands and hope that would be enough would haunt her for the rest of her days, a cowardly, selfish act that would only serve herself. And whatever her mother thought of her, for all her short-comings and unusualness, Lena wouldn’t sacrifice someone for her own gain. Not someone she loved, even if they were an ordinary human.

 

            The town soon approached, a wall of darkness spreading across the horizon, turrets of the castle peering over them, lit by a thousand torches to keep the night at bay. Even from a distance, it felt evil to Lena, as it had every time she’d come close or gone within the walls, so much hatred brewing inside like a festering wound. She would’ve been glad to never come close to it again, but she tipped her chin up with as much stubborn bravery as she could manage at that moment and stared through the bars as they trundled through the gates that opened for them. 

 

            It felt like being swallowed by an open mouth, black and ominous, dragging her into the depths of its close streets, foul and blotting out the sky, reducing it to narrow strips of dark clouds barely visible overhead. Lena breathed through her mouth as the wheels splashed through brown puddles and curious eyes watched from the shadows, the streets strangely empty as everyone locked themselves indoors, whether at home or in a tavern to drink the night away, waiting for the witch to be dragged in. Only the bravest lingered against the stone and wooden sides of shops along the thoroughfare, spitting into the dirt and throwing whatever was handy at the bars of the cage as it wheeled past.

 

            Lena blinked in surprise at their display of hostility, thinking about how their fear could live hand-in-hand with their boldness. If she wished, she could reduce the entire city to rubble with the snap of her fingers, mortar crumbling to dust and nails to nothing but rust, but they’d never encountered a witch like her before. The most they had come in contact with were the watered-down outcasts, wanted by neither side in this feud, who trembled in their cages or lay drugged and bound, unable to escape even if they could muster the power. 

 

            Lena didn’t know whether it was her willingness that had spared her from being dosed with some poisonous concoction, her magic stripped away from her as it lay beyond her befuddled mind, but she was glad for it, even if it made everything vivid in her mind. Perhaps to be drugged was a kindness, one that Alex denied her in retribution for mixing Kara up in her dangerous life. She couldn’t blame her for that, in fact, Lena would’ve thanked her for it, for the chance to go out with dignity and pride. To walk to her own execution clear-headed, with the knowledge that she was dying for a purpose. Lena would willingly walk into the flames herself to protect Kara.

 

            It felt like hours since passing through the gates that the finally came to a stop outside the portcullis of the castle. They’d taken the straight road through the centre of the town, Lena knew that, but each rotation of the wagon’s wheels felt agonisingly long as if they were going as slow as possible with her on parade for the few brave enough to venture out and catch a glimpse of the witch. It was almost a relief when they came to a halt, hunters dismounting, the sound of armour rattling and swords being drawn and horses stamping on the cobblestones of the courtyard.

 

            There was a flurry of activity, exchanged shouts and orders and everyone on alert, the tension almost unbearable as she languished in the back of the wagon, waiting expectantly. The moon was nearly at its zenith by the time Alex appeared at the door to the cage, just as serious and tense as before, flanked by soldiers with pikes and drawn bowstrings, all of them itching for her to make a wrong move so they could spill her blood. Alex didn’t say anything, her brown eyes flashing a warning before she opened the door, the key grating in the hole.

 

            “Come.”

 

            “Should I put these back on?” Lena asked, lifting the manacles with a hand and arching an eyebrow.

 

            Lips parting, Alex’s eyes went wide and there was the scuffling uneasiness as hunters jostled in preparation of an attack. “How did- nevermind. Put them back on and don’t make any sudden movements. It’ll be easier for you if you don’t cause a fuss.”

 

            Nodding, Lena chained herself back up and stood as she watched a soldier haul themselves into the back of the cage and unchain her from the ring set into the floor. Lena could’ve done it herself, of course, but she didn’t want to accidentally incite a riot with a tiny show of magic. She imagined none of the other weak witches of falsely accused had ever slipped them before and was almost tempted to give them a show of what a real witch could do, but reined herself in, in order to not make things worse for Kara.

 

            Weighed down by chains, her shoulders slumped and she looked down with curiosity as they shackled her legs too, limiting her stride as they trussed her up and then forcibly dragged her from the wagon. Rolling her eyes, Lena suppressed a sigh and a curse and staggered as she was set on her own feet, before the chains cuffing her ankles tripped her up and she went sprawling on the cobblestones.

 

            Striking her chin, she bit down hard on her tongue, the coppery taste of blood flooding her mouth as she blinked back dizzying black spots, the pinpricks of light from held torches swimming in and out of focus. Hauled to her feet by a strong hand, Lena swallowed and shook her head, chin smarting and the tell-tale warm trickle of blood running down her neck as she rubbed her scraped palms together, teeth grit against the stinging pain.

 

            “Let’s go,” Alex muttered between gritted teeth.

 

            She held Lena by the back of her cloak, propelling her along, and Lena could barely stay upright as they followed after a pair of soldiers, through the gated garrison set on the east wing of the castle and into a small stone outbuilding. Guards stood around, watching on with interest as the soldiers went off to fulfil their duties and spread the gossip around the castle, while a small retinue escorted Lena.

 

            “Where is she?” Lena murmured around a mouthful of blood as she was guided over the threshold of the building, the smell of metal and leather and dank stone growing stronger as she was led to the back.

 

            Stairs descended into darkness, the walls suffocatingly close, and Lena felt a prickle of fear for the first time. She was a wild thing, meant to live outdoors beneath the open sky or amongst the trees, not trapped below the earth in a lifeless place, feeling the city and the darkness closing in on her. And yet, they led her down and down, beneath tonnes of rock and earth, into the bowels of the castle while rats scurried over her feet and the smell of stale air, laced with blood and sweat and more unsavoury things, mingled together in a sickening aroma.

 

            They came to the bottom of the staircase to a long hallway and Lena was taken to the left, through a locked gate and then through a small guardroom, before she was led through a wooden door to the wailing sounds of other prisoners. Mouth dry, Lena allowed herself to be marched through the place, thinking it some sort of hell, a place she wouldn’t wish anyone to, not even her mother, for death would be kinder. Although, she supposed she wouldn’t spend much time down there anyway.

 

            The iron gate or a cell screeched as it was opened in anticipation of her arrival, a chilling sound that made her blood turn cold. Once she went in, she knew her chances of escaping would grow weaker, more obstacles before her. She would be able to handle them, of course, but they would be a nuisance and she couldn’t anticipate the hunters’ moves. Of course, Lena had known that the moment she’d let them take her below ground, and she walked into the cell with as much grace as she could manage, chains rattling as she drew herself up tall and jerked her chin forward. Her green eyes were sharp and piercing as she looked at Alex.

 

            Two soldiers removed the shackles, the heavy burden lifting as Lena rolled her sore shoulders, before she was dragged to the back wall of the tiny cell and her wrists were clapped into new irons. They had some give, but not enough for her to get within a foot of the cell door as it screeched and slammed shut in her face as she lunged forward.

 

            “Please,” Lena frantically muttered to Alex, her expression softening to one of hopeless devastation, “just tell me where you’re taking her.”

 

            “Far away from you,” Alex snapped as she took a step towards the door, a dark silhouette backlit by firelight as a hunter lingered behind with a torch.

 

            “When she wakes … it would be best if you pretend she’s had the sickness for a turn.”

 

            Alex had turned to walk away but paused at Lena’s words, glancing sharply back at her, “what?”

 

            “She may be … confused.”

 

            Gripping the iron bars, Alex’s eyes went wide with fear as anger twisted her face, “what did you do to her?”

 

            With a sad smile, Lena closed her eyes, exhaling fully as she felt the fight drain out of her and a sense of peace take hold in her heart, a certain calmness at the knowledge as her shoulders curved.

           

            “I took the memories. I made her forget.”

 

            Turning to look over her shoulder, Alex snapped her fingers and scowled at the young soldier. “Leave!”

 

            She grabbed the torch from him and shoved it into a wall sconce just outside the cell, before unlocking the door and yanking it open, the sound grating in Lena’s ears as she ground her teeth together. And then Alex was upon her, a hand wrapped around her throat as she slammed Lena against the stone wall, pinning her in place.

 

            “If you’ve hurt her in any way, I swear I will-”

 

            “What?” Lena weakly chuckled, “kill me? That’s your intention already, isn’t it, Alexandra?”

 

            Jerking back as if she’d been stung, Alex looked at her with disconcertion, caught off-balance by the sound of her name, pale and angry and scared. “How do you know my name? Don’t call me that.”

 

            “I know many things about you. I know that you’re an interrogator here, that soon enough you’ll be along with that vile torturer to pry a confession out of me, although we both know I’m the only real witch you’ve ever encountered. You live with your mother; your father passed many years ago. You recently met a woman - tall, light brown hair, green eyes - she told you about Kara. About me. She lied to you.”

 

            “She didn’t lie to me; she told me the truth.”

 

            “She’s a witch. I should know, she’s my mother. She touched you, cast a small spell on you that would keep your mind clear in the woods. It’s not the first time a spell has been used on you though; you were sick last winter.”

 

            Mouth opening and closing, Alex shook her head, “how do you know that?”

 

            “Because I healed you.”

 

            “No.”

 

            “I did. She came to me, my Kara. Out on the hills, in the middle of winter with that big coat that was her father’s and a sword she doesn’t even know how to use.” Lena let out a small laugh, shaking her head as a fond smile curled her lips, “she came to kill me. I should’ve stolen the memories from her then, but I was curious. She wanted to kill me to save your life, to marry the prince so she could ask for anything, but she couldn’t do it. Of course she couldn’t do it - you’re her sister, you know her heart as well as I. To be so desperate she’d come to kill me in winter … I could feel her love for you, so I came to your house. I put my blood on your door to ward off any evil, I healed you. You don’t know it, but that was the first time we met. She tried to convince me of your better qualities, but I find you lacking in every area but your love for her. For that … I won’t hold this against you.”

 

            With a scoff of disbelief, Alex recoiled slightly, “do you expect me to thank you for saving my life? I shan’t. I doubt the truth in your words as much as I doubt your intentions. You’re a scourge on these lands and I’ll see it rid of your kind.”

 

            Solemnly nodding, Lena shifted restlessly, “no doubt you will, but I hope your sister is spared from it. She won’t remember a thing. It is … a kindness, I think. It would be best if she didn’t remember me at all so that no suspicion will be cast upon her.”

 

            “Yes,” Alex bitingly replied, “it would be best if she didn’t remember you. I’m sure you’ll be no more than a shadow on the edge of her memory once your sorcery has worn away to nothing.”

 

            “I will be less than that,” Lena ruefully replied, “I will be nothing to her. Not even a shadow.”

 

            “Then that is something I can be glad for, and to see you as nothing more than ashes.”

 

            Softly sighing, Lena leant back against the wall, “if it will keep her safe, I promise you that I won’t try to flee. I am resolved to die.”

 

            “See that you don’t try. If you free yourself from those chains, I’ll see your hands freed from your arms.”

 

            “I won’t have use for them much longer,” Lena wryly muttered.

 

            Alex’s lips twitched with a bemused smile as her brow creased slightly, confused by Lena’s quiet acceptance of her face. She didn’t beg or cry for her salvation, in fact, she seemed to actively fight against it, helping trap herself by her reluctance to fight. The interrogator didn’t quite know what to make of it as she gave her a smile and a funny look, pausing for a moment before replying.

 

            “No, you won’t,” Alex softly agreed before she hesitated and then turned.

 

            The gate screeched shut once more and the lock thudded into place and Alex studied her a beat longer before taking the torch and leaving, plunging Lena into darkness as her heavy footsteps faded down the hallway. At the sound of the door clanging shut and silence falling, save for the background noise of groans and whimpers that had already faded to the back of Lena’s mind, she quietly unlocked her wrists and moved towards the gate.

 

            The floor was damp stone covered in mildewed straw, an empty bucket in one corner and the foul closeness of the air making it hard to breathe as the odour of occupants long-since departed lingered and mingled with the current occupants of the other cells. Pressing her pale face against the bars as she gripped them tightly, Lena tried to peer through the darkness, and considered summoning a small light but decided against it. To see the squalor she resided in wouldn’t change the fact.

 

            Sighing, Lena moved back over to the back wall of the cell and clapped herself back in chains again and scraped the rotting straw off to one side, disturbing a small nest of mice as they scurried away, and curled herself up on the floor. It had been a long day and Lena had no doubt they’d wake her for her own execution, but in the meantime, there was nothing else to do but sleep away the time and imagine she was still in the forest, at home in her bed. In her mind, Kara was there too, the two of them wrapped up against the cold as their legs tangled together. In her mind, no one came to disturb them, and it was enough to lull her into an uneasy sleep. 

 

            The sound of the door banging shut and the thunderous sound of footsteps was what woke her, and Lena found herself confused for a moment, unsure of the hour or the day in the darkness that blotted out everything. She didn’t know if she’d slept five minutes or fifteen hours, her body stiff and cold on the hard floor as she slowly pushed herself up and blinked away sleep.

 

            They stopped outside her cell door, as she expected, the rusty metal putting her on edge as the door was opened and she scrambled to her feet. Two soldiers uncuffed her from the chains set into the walls and gripped her under her arms, hauling her out and down the hallway, further into the darkness as she passed occupied cells with gaunt, pasty figures languishing in their own filth. She wondered how long they’d been down there: days; weeks; months; perhaps even years. She pitied them all, no matter how short their stay, knowing she’d rather the sharp edge of a blade than to live away from the wild for so long. Lena was not something to be caged and was grateful for their haste to burn the witch and wipe their hands of her - they didn’t offer the same courtesy to the thieves and murderers. 

 

            Dragged into another room, no less suffocatingly foul - perhaps even more so with what looked like decades of blood and vomit staining the floors - but mercifully lit by torchlight, a reprieve from the blinding darkness, Lena blinked frantically as her eyes adjusted. There was yet another chain in this room, dangling from the ceiling with thick cuffs that they clapped her into, her arms taut overhead as she struggled to keep her feet flat on the ground. 

 

            Nobody talked, not as they removed her boots, the stone frigid against her soles as she scrabbled to retain the inch lost, not as they tore her cloak from her shoulders, and not as a man that was undoubtedly in charge walked into the room. The air was tense as Lena licked her lips and swallowed, eyes darting around the room, waiting for what came next, even though she already knew what. It was a room built for a single purpose but she was surprised Alex was absent, thinking she’d want to be the one to lead the interrogation, to worm out a confession that Lena had no intention of withholding to begin with.

 

            “Do not try and lie to me; I will see through your poison,” the interrogator warned her.

 

            Shoulders already aching with the strain of her body being held up against its will, Lena shifted restlessly, unable to balance herself, and let out a breathless laugh. “Believe me, I do not plan on lying to you. As it is, I feel I could tell the honest truth and you would still condemn me, so lies won’t save me now even if I was so inclined.”

 

            “You have a smart mouth.”

 

            With a gesture off to the side, Lena let her eyes follow the line of it and turned into the punch that she didn’t see coming. It was a blinding shock of numbing force, her skin slowly prickling with heat as her senses came back to her and she scrambled to right herself, tipped off balance as she sagged against the restraints. Her lip smarted where it split and she blinked back the fuzziness in her head as she gasped, already feeling where the bruises would blossom.

 

            Lena realised quickly that they didn’t care so much about honesty and that they were there for one purpose, and that was to inflict as much pain as possible. It was easy to retreat inside her mind, finding a small corner of serenity in her heart, sitting beneath the old willow tree, her favourite in the woods, soft moss at her back and freshly fallen autumn leaves beneath her, water trickling nearby and whispered conversation lulling her to sleep. It was a magic of its own kind, one that soothed her as she sheltered herself from reality.

 

            She confessed, of course she did, over and over again, but it seemed to drag on for hours. It very well possibly did. Lena didn’t come back to herself until she was chained up and slumped at the bottom of the wall in her cell once more, feeling the aches and pains, tasting blood and apprehensively shifting as she checked for broken bones. They’d been gentle in comparison to the wounds inflicted upon her growing up, the dangers young witches found themselves in, and she blinked slowly in the darkness as she reached out with the trembling threads of her magic and let it seep into her bones. Without her herbs and medicine, she would be battered and bruised for days, scarcely able to move in the morning, but her magic offered some relief, and Lena let out a faint sigh as she curled herself into a ball and used a spark of magic to steal her away to unconsciousness.

 

            The next time she woke, a quiet groan escaping her as her eyelids slowly peeled themselves open to the orange flames of a torch held in her face, Lena winced and hissed as she recoiled. Her face was a dark, mottled bruise, covered in dried blood and not quite as swollen as it would’ve been if she hadn’t had the awareness to tend to herself as little as she could. Eyes watering, Lena weakly held up a hand to cover her eyes, blinking slowly until she could stand the sudden brightness.

 

            An impatient hand grabbed her by the shoulder of her shirt and dragged her to her feet before she managed to orient herself, and Lena’s eyes widened a fraction at the sight of Alex. A scowl darkened her face, a flicker of wariness in her dark eyes as they roamed over Lena’s face in a cursory appraisal before Alex let her go and Lena sagged. The stone behind her was cold to touch and Lena suppressed a shiver, her toes curling against the stone floor as her lips trembled.

 

            “What did you do to her?” Alex frantically asked, her voice low and an agitated tension to her.

 

            A fleeting smile broke out on Lena’s face as she swayed unsteadily, before letting the wall bear the brunt of her weight, dirty fingers scraping against the stone as she rested her bruised cheek against it. Tears pricked her eyes and Lena sighed.

 

            “She doesn’t know who I am, does she?”

 

            “No,” Alex hissed, “she is not herself.

 

            “I already told you; I made her forget. I stole her memories of me, of what happened.”

 

            Misery sank like a stone in Lena’s stomach as she sniffed and swallowed a sob, resigned to the fact that her magic had worked, and grateful she’d never have to witness it. 

 

            “But you- she’s confused.”

 

            “Of course she’s confused,” Lena sharply replied, “do you know how many times she snuck away to see me? There are holes where I should be. I cannot stitch them together with no thread.”

 

            “That isn’t it. You have befuddled her, you’ve … done something.”

 

            With a scathing sound, Lena pushed herself up straight and glowered at Alex, lip curling slightly, “of course I’ve done something; I’ve taken away her love.”

           

            “She didn’t love you. You tricked her! You put thoughts into her head and twisted her heart; it was nothing more than magic.”

 

            “Of course it was magic - that’s what love is . That’s why I’m here, against my deepest desires, to ensure that she doesn’t take my place because of fear. I have taken all her thoughts of me and now I will take her heart with me too, to my grave. I would give it back if I could, but she offered it to me freely and willingly, under no enchantment of my making. In fact, I refused it many times.”

 

            “Why?”

 

            A ghost of a smile graced Lena’s face as her eyelashes fluttered and she slouched slightly, “they’re wild things. I didn’t think I had much use for it, so … settled in my solitude, was I. It was against my better judgement that I accepted her feelings and returned them too, and for that ... I’m deeply sorry. To make her forget, to give her back her normal life … it is the least I can do.”

 

            “How do you know you haven’t … broken her?” Alex sharply asked.

 

            “Would you prefer that she remembered me enough to cast suspicion on herself?”

 

            “No, but-”

 

            “Then there you have it. I have done what little I could.”

 

            “She is not herself.”

 

            Swallowing thickly as Alex’s shout filled the small space, angry and panicked, Lena closed her eyes to keep the stinging feeling of tears away. She took a few moments to gather herself before replying, her voice barely a whisper.

 

            “Give it time. Time will heal all, and she’ll no longer wonder at the lost time, at the emptiness. She’ll forget about the lost hours and move on. Human minds are fickle like that. But … can you promise me one thing?”

 

            “Why would I?”

 

            Ignoring the snide jibe, Lena pressed on, “take care of her for me.”

 

            Stiffening, Alex opened and closed her mouth before her expression darkened, “you may think you love her, but it is twisted and wrong . She will be better off without your magic in her life. I doubt the truth of your feelings for her, and the validity of her own, but if there is one thing that I will always do, it’s look after my sister. I don’t need magic for that.”

 

            “Good,” Lena curtly replied, dipping her chin in gratitude.

 

            Hesitating, she licked her lips and then looked at Alex, “if you please … what time will they be taking me?”

 

            A flicker of pity rippled across Alex’s face, a quick wince of guilt and regret before she wrestled her expression under control. Gruffly clearing her throat, she raised her chin and met Lena’s sad eyes with a level stare.

 

            “They’ll come for you soon. You’re to be put before the royal family first.”

 

            “Ah … they’re to make a spectacle out of me.”

 

            “The court will be gladdened to see justice brought down upon this plague of witchcraft. Afterwards, you’ll be taken to the pyre. I can’t promise it will be swift or painless.”

 

            “I should think not,” Lena replied with as much bravery as she could muster.

 

            Pausing, Alex gave her a wary look as she shifted uncertainly, “I trust you’ll come quietly?”

 

            At the question in the words, anxious and hopeful, Lena’s lips twitched with a smile, “as a mouse.”

 

            Deflating slightly, Alex nodded, “good. That will be for the best.”

 

            “I’ll await it with eager anticipation,” Lena sarcastically replied.

 

            Despite herself, Alex let out a snort of laughter, the tension in the cell seeming to break as they fell into a sudden lapse of silence. The interrogator seemed to realise her mistake and quickly cleared her throat before wordlessly turning around. Lena watched her with curiosity, finding that she couldn’t hate Alex, not even now, and that she might have even liked her under different circumstances, her solid determination and loyalty somewhat admirable, even if her ignorance cast a pall over it. 

 

            As she neared the gate, Alex stopped in her tracks, boots scuffing on the floor, and while she didn’t quite turn around or raise her head, she glanced back slightly, eyes cast downwards as she spoke, vulnerable honesty in her voice.

 

            “I’m sorry for what they did to you,” Alex murmured.

 

            Tears flooded Lena’s eyes and she swallowed thickly, her voice gravelly as she replied, a hollowness in her chest that left her feeling weak and helpless. “It’s okay.”

 

            Seeming to chew on her words, Alex didn’t move, brimming with nervous energy before she finally sighed and spoke, “thank you. For what you did for her.”

 

            A sad smile spread across Lena’s face as she closed her eyes, tears tracing their way down her cheeks as she turned her head aside to try and escape the punch of the words. She’d expected Alex’s gratitude, had said so to her herself, but to be proven right over something so devastating didn’t soften the blow. 

 

            If it wasn’t for the fact that she would be making a swift exit from this world shortly, Lena didn’t think she’d be able to live with the weight of her actions, erasing herself from the mind of the only person she’d ever unconditionally had. But it was what was best for Kara, and Lena wouldn’t be there much longer to see that she was safe and protected. The least she could do was live with one last selfless act to ensure that Kara never so much as whispered about a time when she’d loved the witch in the wood. Kara had once said she would miss Lena even if her memories had been wiped clean of her, and in her last hours left alive, Lena prayed that she was wrong and that emptiness inside would be filled by someone else and Kara would never wonder about what she was searching for.

 

            It was lonely in the dark as she felt the end draw near, trying to hold herself together, to not let herself break at the end. Lena wasn’t prone to bouts of emotional outbursts, her solitary life leaving little room for wounded feelings by careless words, but she felt the urge to cry in the dungeons, to mourn the life she could’ve had with Kara in a different world where they could remain tucked away in the forest, undisturbed. It would’ve been a good life, peaceful and quiet, and it was soon to be lost forever. Now, all she could imagine was the kind of life Kara had before her, binding books and perhaps one day falling in love with the florist or the stable master.

 

            When they came for her, it was with that knowledge that Kara would be okay, would live and love and enjoy her life even when Lena was nothing more than ashes, that made her climb to her feet, shivering and thin and black and blue all over. They didn’t offer her a cloak or shoes; she had no need for them where she was going, and Lena imagined the image she presented made her look all the more feral and dangerous, a creature to be shackled and dragged through the belly of the castle.

 

            Hands chained behind her back and hauled through dark hallways and up stairs and through many doors and rooms and around corners and yet more corners, a dizzying trip of bracketed torches and pale faces of servants and soldiers peering from the shadows, Lena was led upstairs. She’d never imagined she’d see the inside of a castle and couldn’t stop herself from staring as they come up from the all-consuming darkness of the underground servant’s quarters into a wide hallway, so lavish that her eyes widened at the tapestries and finely carved furniture, the abundance of candles making gold and silver trinkets gleam, a warm runner down the centre of the flagstone floor a welcome reprieve from the stinging chill of cold stone. 

 

            Everywhere she looked it was rich and comfortable and Lena barely had the chance to take it all in before large double doors at the end of the hallway were hauled open by four guards and she was led into a cavernous room. The throne room. Her arrival cast a hushed pall over the crowded occupants of the room, decked out in finery as they stared at her with open interest, and Lena smiled a bloody smile as she was dragged in, feet scraping along the stone floors as shadows stole most of the light from the room. She didn’t imagine there were enough candles in the kingdom to keep the darkness at bay there, but at the far end, a trio was illuminated by braziers near three thrones.

 

            Knees kicked out from beneath her, Lena went down hard on the floor, knees jarring at the impact as her hands scraped on the stone, and she looked up through her tangled hair to watch as the king rose from his throne. A ripple of whispers ran through the assembled nobility and Lena breathed shallowly as she waited.

 

            Slow footsteps descended the steps from the dais at the end of the long hall and Lena tensed as they steadily grew closed, a pair of polished leather boots stopping before her as she stared at the floor. A hand reached down and jerked her chin up, surprisingly gentle, and she looked up into a pair of curious blue eyes. The prince loomed over her, an unreadable expression on his face before he dropped his hand and straightened up.

 

            “So this is the infamous witch of the wilds?” he loudly stated.

 

            Glaring up at him, Lena knelt with her hands bound behind her back, on her knees as she held herself back from unleashing hell on him and his family. On the whole court. Pressing her lips into a flat line as she ground her teeth together, she stayed silent and watched as he turned around and spread his arms wide.

 

            “I expected more.”

 

            Laughter rippled through the crowd, diffusing some of the tension, and the prince cast her another look before he walked back towards his throne and sprawled in it, arrogant and spoilt to the right of his father. The king still stood, hands clasped behind his back, and stared at Lena down the length of the hall, with no intention of approaching.

 

            “Long has whispers of a witch lurking outside these walls plagued us. Long have our people feared the roads and the mountains, the hills and the cliffs and the plains. Our hunters have searched tirelessly for many moons and seasons, searching for her and purging our lands of others of her kind in the process. Finally, we have caught her, and tomorrow, our people will be free to roam where they should like. And to all the other witches hiding in secrecy, we shall oust them as well. Burn their houses and the flesh from their bones.”

 

            Applause and cheers filled the hall and Lena let out a snort of laughter, her body trembling with fear, even as she knew she wouldn’t fight back. Even as she knew she could free herself with little more than a thought, toss the silly nobles in their gaudy little costumes around like ragdolls, tear them limb from limb and paint the walls and floors with their blood before she burned the castle to the ground. It would be easy, all Lena would have to do was stoke the anger in her heart, the frustration she’d stifled for too long at being persecuted for her quiet life away from civilisation. But she didn’t give in, was determined to keep hold of her morals until the very end.

 

            And then she saw her mother.

 

            Dressed up in a purple dress every inch as fine as the other nobles, applauding along with them as her dark lips twitched with a smile and her green eyes narrowed as their eyes met. Lena’s lips drew back in a snarl and she opened her mouth to shout a curse at her, to perhaps go out while taking her mother with her, a last act of retribution that would make the lands safer for everyone. That wouldn’t be against her morals, her peaceful nature; it would be a service to the very people who hunted her down. And then a loud shout cut through the applause and Lena stiffened.

 

            “Wait! Wait!”

 

            Closing her eyes, Lena hunched her shoulders and her lips moved soundlessly as silence fell over the crowd, confusion and wariness leaving everyone tense and still. But Lena would’ve known that voice anywhere, even in death, and clenched her hands into fists as she heard the scuffling sounds behind her, off to the left.

 

            “Kara!” Alex hissed, her voice carrying through the hall.

 

            “Let me go!” Kara shouted.

 

            Then came the frantic footsteps running across the distance separating them and Lena felt her eyes flood with tears as she shook her head. And her strength failed her as Kara collapsed to her knees before her and gently brushed Lena’s tangled hair out of her face, a small sob falling from her lips as she took in the sight of her bruised and bloody face.

 

            “What have they done to you?” Kara whispered, her voice breaking.

 

            Peeling her eyelids open, Lena looked at her through a film of tears, shaking her head as her whole body was wracked with silent sobs. “No, no, no. You’re not supposed to be here. You need to go. Please, Kara. Please go.”

 

            “I am not leaving you,” Kara ground out between clenched teeth, tears running down her pale face as she grasped at Lena, her fingers gently brushing her skin and her hair, the side of her neck and the underside of her jaw, a frantic reassurance that she was there.

 

            “You’re not supposed to remember me,” Lena sobbed.

 

            “Of course I remember you.”

 

            Kara pressed their foreheads together and Lena instinctively leant forward, arms still painfully bound behind her, aching for one more moment with her. “You can’t be here,” Lena whispered, her nose bumping against Kara’s, “please go. Don’t watch it. Please.”

 

            “I won’t let them hurt you,” Kara cried, “it’s okay. I’m going to save you.”

 

            “No, Kara.”

 

            “It’s okay-”

 

            Kara was pulled away from her by a guard, twisting her arm painfully enough to make Kara cry out as her face twisted. Lena’s pale face flushed with anger and she opened her mouth to utter the words that would make him pay when Alex sprang forward, sword already singing free of its sheath as she let out a bark of anger.

 

            “Unhand her now,” Alex warned, sword pointed at the guard, who dropped Kara.

 

            Crawling towards Lena, Kara wrapped her arms around her and buried her face into her neck, while Lena watched over her shoulder with wide eyes as Alex stepped in front of them, blocking them with her body. Sword held before her in a defensive manner, she stood waiting for someone to attack, almost daring them to.

 

            “Kara, it’s okay,” Lena whispered into her hair as she turned her head to the side, “you can let go now. I’ll be okay.”

 

            “If you die, then I go with you.”

 

            “You don’t have to,” Lena lightly replied, gentle and soothing, “I’ll be okay by myself. I’ll go back to the trees and the wind and the sea. I’ll be in everything once more, like I was before I was made into this. Your time isn’t yet. I’ll be okay.”

 

            “I won’t let you,” Kara hoarsely replied.

 

            “Kara,” Alex hissed, “get away.”

 

            Pulling back and wiping at her cheeks, Kara cleared her throat and climbed to her feet, stepping around Alex, who shot her a sharp look and boldly stared down the king. 

 

            “The only thing she is guilty of is falling in love. And if she is guilty, then so am I.”

 

            “Stand down, you foolish girl,” the prince drawled.

 

            Jerking her chin up, Kara clenched her hands into fists as her bottom lip wobbled and her blue eyes shone with tears. Alex stepped forward and yanked on her shirt, whispering a plea as she gave Kara a wretched look of desperation, begging her not to resist.

 

            “I will not.”

 

            “Forgive her, Your Highness,” Alex breathlessly called out, “her mind has been addled by magic, she doesn’t know what she’s doing.”

 

            “She’s done nothing wrong!” Kara shouted, becoming distressed and frustrated as she stamped her foot and then waved a hand off to the side, “if you’re looking for an evil creature then look no further than before you. There is one standing in your midst.”

 

            Uneasy murmurs turned to loud chattering as panic swept through the audience and the king had to shout for silence before the din quietened. With a severe look on his face, he slowly dismounted the dais and walked towards Kara.

 

            “Whom do you speak of?”

 

            “Her.”

 

            Kara raised a hand and pointed at Lillian, who froze with a sharp smile on her face, caught in between fleeing and feigning ignorance. The king turned and followed her line of sight and Lena closed her eyes, saying a silent prayer for Kara’s stupidity before the king snapped his fingers.

 

            “Seize her.”

 

            The order rang out clearly and Lena’s eyes snapped open in time to watch half a dozen soldiers lower their pikes and draw their swords while the crowd backed away. Kara took a step back too, and Lena’s stomach lurched as she watched her mother curl her lips and crook a hand.

 

            Lena knew her power, knew her thirst for revenge, and fear lanced through her heart as her eyes lifted to Kara. Soldiers were blasted away and screams quickly filled the hall, and Lena pushed her magic into the locked manacles around her wrists and tore them free as chaos erupted. 

 

            Jumping before her sister, Alex brandished her sword readily and Lena lurched unsteadily to her feet, anticipating a fight, although she was far from able to handle her mother in her current position. Still, she staggered towards Kara, her lips moving even though she wasn’t sure she was speaking as the room tilted and her eyes rang.

 

            “Stay behind me,” she said, her bloodstained fingers grasping at Kara’s blue coat as she moved to protect her.

 

            And then a cloaked and hooded figure loomed before them, face hidden by shadows, although Lena knew the telltale sign of that magic. Comforting, like the smell of paper and leather and ink, perfect for the owner of a printing store, the warlock grabbed the arms of the two women and gently shoved them back.

 

            “Go.”

 

            Lena watched J’onn turn towards Lillian, magic thrumming in the air as he already started working spells to counter her mother’s damage, smoke filling the air and a chill so cold that it made her joints ache. She made to follow after him, afraid that her mother would be too much of a match, but found herself dragged backwards.

 

            An arm wound around her chest, and Lena was pulled away, unable to properly form a protest as she was frantically dragged from the room. Dizzy and weak and in pain, the shouting and the sounds of snapping bones, the smell of a fire and the press of panicked bodies closing in around her as she was dragged into the flow of nobles escaping, Lena could do nothing but allow herself to go with it.

 

            It wasn’t until she was out the front doors, doubled over, struggling to breathe, that she was able to take stock of things. Of Kara, grasping her shoulders, keeping her upright and stumbling along, keeping her moving before anyone realised their witch had escaped. It didn’t seem likely that they would think her the most pressing issue at the present, what with the sound of walls being blasted apart, of destruction wrought upon the castle.

 

            Coughing and gasping, Lena could scarcely bring herself to keep going, and Kara had to pull them to a stop and shake her gently, her face pale and pinched above her. “Quickly, Lena. We must go. You have to get out of here.”

 

            “Come with me,” Lena rasped, her voice a scratchy sigh as she weakly clutched at the lapels of Kara’s coat.

 

            “I am. I’m not leaving. Quickly, now. We have to leave before we’re found out.”

 

            Hand in hand, they moved quickly, as quick as they both could, with Lena beaten to a pulp and Kara’s stitched wound reopened, out the main portcullis that hadn’t yet been closed, most of the soldiers rushing in to help with the rogue witch. The courtyard beyond the castle steps was a mess, guards rushing through from the garrison and panicked people running about, and it was easy for Kara to snag the reins of a spooked horse and heave Lena up onto its back before pulling herself up. The protests that followed them disappeared quickly as they galloped out into the town, pounding down the damp streets, splashing through puddles and nearly bowling over curious on-lookers who’d come out to see what the distant screams and clamouring of bells and rumbling tremors were about.

 

            It was dark out - whether it was the same night or days since she’d been brought in, Lena had no idea - and they both knew the gates wouldn’t be open at this hour, even without a witch razing the castle to the ground, so they stopped in a side alley. Dismounting, Kara slapped the horse’s rump and ushered Lena out into the street before she came to a stop in the back alley of the bookstore. Fishing out a key, she by-passed the shared stable and opened the narrow back door to the cramped hallway beyond and shut them into the dark.

 

            “Where are we?” Lena rasped.

 

            “The bookstore,” Kara replied, even as Lena felt the ripple of the wards settle over her as she took a moment to gather herself. “J’onn told me to bring you here.”

 

            Sagging against the wall, Lena couldn’t bring herself to move, exhaustion weighing her down as she slowly sank down to the base of the wall, pitching sideways so her cheek was pressed against the ancient wooden floorboards.

 

            “You shouldn’t remember me,” she murmured. “How do you remember me?”

 

            Kara’s response was the last thing Lena heard before she slipped into unconsciousness, sprawled on the floor of the narrow hallway, safely wrapped up inside the wards of the bookstore, the smell of paper and ink and wood lulling her into a false sense of security, a small safe haven in the middle of so much lifeless evil that festered in the town. 

 

            “I would never forget you.”

Chapter Text

            Dawn was hours away when Lena came to, in the softest bed she’d ever slept in, beneath warm blankets with the sweet aroma of polished wood and a crackling fire. She couldn’t say which day it was, but her body was leaden as if she had been asleep for weeks, buoyed by the soft mattress and stuffed pillows.

 

            To drag her eyes open was an effort, hindered by the fact that the left one was swollen shut. Pain landed through her body, in every imaginable place, and she had to fight the instinct to curl in on herself, knowing her broken bones would protest. 

 

            This couldn’t have been death; it hurt too much. There was no dancing in the wind, surging with the waters or singing of the stars. She did not feel like she was in everything, free and safe and full of life, even without a corporeal form. It was too full of pain, an unending suffering that could only be the byproduct of life, and with a listless sigh, she forced her eyelids open a crack and turned her head.

 

            “Kara?” she rasped, her voice faint.

 

            It belied the frantic terror in her heart, the befuddling nature of her mind, shrouded in darkness as the memories refused to surface. She was tired, more tired than she could ever remember being in her life, and Lena would’ve liked to sleep more, if not for the name on the tip of her tongue that superseded all else.

 

            “Kara.”

 

            She tried again, more forceful this time, and felt the startling rustle of someone jumping into motion. And then gentle fingertips brushed her bruised cheeks, so achingly soft that Lena’s chest hurt and her eyes smarted with tears.

 

            “It’s me. It’s me.”

 

            Exhaling, Lena’s body went slack and tears traced their way down her temples as she fumbled for Kara’s hand. Those warm fingers closed around her wrist and held her still, quiet hushes stilling her.

 

            “Don’t move,” Kara gently warned her, a brittle edge of anguish in her voice, “you’re badly wounded.”

 

            “I don’t … recall what happened. But … you were there

 

            “I was.”

 

            “I took your memories. I remember that.

 

            With a choked laugh, which sounded more like a sob, torn between relief and sadness, Kara gently brushed Lena’s hair, her voice a low murmur beside her ear. She must’ve been kneeling next to the bed, but Lena couldn’t keep her eyes open enough to see her.

 

            “You tried . J’onn had long since warded me against such magic. My necklace. I was … disoriented though. He says you’re more powerful than he is, but the spell held. I was able to recover myself in time-“

 

            “The castle. The forest. My mother.”

 

            “Don’t fret about that now. You must sleep, Lena. We must leave as soon as you’re able. J’onn is not as well versed in the healing arts as you; you will need to recover your strength on your own. As much as you can. It’s too dangerous for us to linger for too long.”

 

            Swallowing painfully, her mouth dry and coppery, Lena’s eyes rolled beneath her closed lids as she tried to take stock of her injuries through the clouded fog of her mind. She couldn’t pinpoint anything specific; it hurt everywhere.

 

            “How much time can you give me?”

 

            “Until dawn.”

 

            “I can feel it approaching,” Lena murmured, her bloodless lips barely moving as she drew in a shallow breath. “Fetch me willow bark. Primrose flowers and arnica. It’s a herb. Devil’s claw if you can find it. Brew them in a tea; it will ease my pain enough for us to go.”

 

            Face pinched with worry, Kara nodded and pressed a tender kiss to Lena’s hair before pulling the blankets up over her and briskly striding from the room. For all his shortcomings in healing, J’onn had a well-stocked supply of herbs behind a hidden panel in the basement, stored in case of such circumstances, and Kara was grateful as she took what she needed.

 

            J’onn had returned hours before, cut up and limping, his dark skin already swelling with bruising. Kara tended him as well as she could, which was even worse than he would’ve fared himself, and, after seeing to Lena, he shut himself in his room and hadn’t stirred since.

 

            Kara was left alone to see the night through, dark circles beneath her eyes and a skin-crawling agitation at being found out. Alone with worried thoughts to keep her company, Kara brewed the tea, hoping she was doing it right, while she considered how they would smuggle Lena out of the town without being caught. Not only that, but it was a long walk to the forest, and they knew that was the centre of Lena’s domain now, where before they had scoured the entire countryside searching. 

 

            The forest had been foreboding, much like the mountains and the open plains, each one a potential place for a witch to be hiding under the guise of magic. Even the patrols of hunters hated to get too near the woods, but now, with all that had happened, they would come down on the trees in a relentless wave, breaching through Lena’s wards until they finally had her. It wouldn’t be safe there, but there was nowhere else to go for now. It would suffice, anything better than the cage they currently found themselves in.

 

            Tense and afraid, Kara carried a jug of the tea upstairs once brewed and quietly shifted a chair to Lena’s bedside. With a cheesecloth, she soaked the end in the herbal mixture and let drops trickle into Lena’s mouth, waiting to see the signs that it had taken effect.

 

            Minutely, Lena’s face seemed to relax, the taut hardness of her face softening ever so slightly as her lips parted. Sweat still beaded her forehead from the fever and her breathing was shallow, but she looked more at peace, and it was enough to ease Kara’s worries for the time being.

 

            Lightly dozing in the chair beside the bed, the fire in the hearth burning down to cherry red embers as dawn approached, Kara waited and was awoken by the sound of the door creaking open. 

 

            Eyes parting, she found herself looking at J’onn’s swollen and bruised face and eased herself from the chair. Stepping into the hallway with him, she eased the door shut and spoke in a low voice.

 

            “It’s time. We must leave.”

 

            “I will aid you,” he assured her.

 

            His help would benefit them, but Kara was hesitant to take it, biting her lip as her face darkened. “You have done too much already.”

 

            “She is of my clan; it is my duty as kin to help her.”

 

            Nodding, Kara opened her mouth and then swallowed, hesitating before trying again. “Her mother …”

 

            J’onn rested a gentle hand on her shoulder in reassurance, “she will not trouble you for a time, at least. She is in the dungeons, chained and doomed to the pyre. I imagine she will worm her way free - she is wily and cunning - but she will be in no state to bother you until she recovers.”

 

            “Your face-“

 

            “She is as strong as her daughter, perhaps even more so for the ruthless streak Lena lacks, or does not act upon. In a fair fight, she would’ve bested me thrice times over. It is good that it was not a fair fight.”

 

            He gave her a smile and winced, holding his ribs, and Kara ushered him downstairs to fetch him some tea to ease his pains. There was little more she could offer him, and in the early-morning dimness, they sat around the table in his comfortable kitchen and planned their escape.

 

            The gap between the closed drapes lightened to grey as the sun started to rise, and Kara grimly went to wake Lena as J’onn set about their plan. Padding upstairs, Kara eased open the door and moved over to the bed, laying her hand against Lena’s cheek to wake her gently.

 

            “Lena, my love-“

 

            Lena’s hand clenched around Kara’s wrist as her eyes snapped open and she drew in a shallow breath, her chest rising and falling quickly as panic set in. There was a haunted look in her eyes, which quickly vanished as recognition lit up her green eyes and her face twisted with pain. Dropping Kara’s wrist, her hand flopped back down onto the mattress and she closed her eyes.

 

            “Forgive me, I am not myself.”

 

            Giving her a strained smile, Kara stroked her hair and sighed. Eyelashes fluttering against bruised and split cheeks, Lena pressed her lips into a flat line.

 

            “It is time for us to go.”

 

            “It is,” Kara regretfully replied, “I wish I could stop all time so that you might rest awhile, but …”

 

            “It isn’t safe for either of us to tarry. Help me to my feet; I will not let a few scratches get the better of me.”

 

            She was already pushing herself up, trying to stifle an agonisingly long groan as her broken bones and aching body protested. Grabbing her under the arms, Kara eased her up and Lena braced her hands against Kara’s shoulders before lurching to her feet.

 

            She stumbled slightly and swayed unsteadily after catching her balance, and Kara’s face was fraught with worry, eliciting a small laugh from Lena, who clumsily patted her cheek.

 

            “Do not fret, my dearest one. All will be well.”

 

            “All will be well,” Kara murmured in agreement.

 

            Lena had slept in her ragged clothes, torn and bloody from the interrogation she’d endured, out of necessity for her to be ready to move if the hunters came banging on the door, so it was quick to ready themselves. Kara laced Lena’s boots on for her and wrapped a spare woollen cloak of J’onn’s around her shoulders, before donning her blue coat and belting on her sword. 

 

            Too weak to use her magic, Lena couldn’t glide downstairs and was subjected to the jolting pain of each step as she leaned heavily against Kara. Her bones weren’t set and they scraped and shifted, leaving her grey-faced and perspiring by the time they reached the kitchen.

 

            J’onn was on his feet, dressed to travel in the cold, holding a bulging knapsack in his hands. Lena drew in a shaky breath at the sight of him and returned his nod with a weak one of her own.

 

            “Into the cellar, quickly,” he urged Kara, shoving a cup into Lena’s hands as they moved.

 

            It was the painkiller tea, steeped strongly and bitter-tasting as she downed it, yet mercifully warm and enough to soon take the edge off the sickening agony that wracked her. She set the cup down on a wooden bench before she was ushered into the dark mouth of a staircase leading down.

 

            The air smelled of rich earth, a comfort that eased some of the pressure in Lena’s chest, and the stairs were steep, making it hard for her to descend. J’onn used what little magic was safe for him to do so to guide her down, alleviating some of the effects of gravity, and soon enough, Lena’s feet were planted on the packed earthen floor of the cellar.

 

            One wall held cubbyholes of herbs and tinctures and other such plants and natural materials, and it warmed her slightly to know that even here, beneath the stifling rule of tyrants, her brethren still practised the old ways and the small rituals of the seasons and holidays. J’onn was always careful, that much was evident from the lack of magic that had clung to Kara, and was a weak warlock, for all his knowledge, but now he reeked of magic, of spent power, and Lena fixed him with a piercing stare as he met her eyes.

 

            “Thank you. I do not think I could have faced her in my state.”

 

            “I’ll try my best to keep her away until you’re far enough to be found so easily.”

 

            Dipping her head in thanks, Lena watched as he moved to the cubbyholes and pulled the shelves outwards to reveal a dark hole. It vanished into the wall, and Lena glanced back at the warlock, questioning.

 

            “Where will it take us?”

 

            “Through to the caves just past the harbour. Follow the coastline around to the north until you reach the end. There is a path up to the cliffs; I will wait for you there with a horse.”

 

            Nodding, she stepped into the dark tunnel with Kara following behind, after taking a moment to thank her boss. Reaching for the weak threads of her magic, Lena called on the oxygen around them and the heat within her to form a flickering flame, giving it life as it illuminated a short way before them.

 

            It was an agonisingly slow walk, Lena’s fingers skimming the earthen wall for balance, before it gave way to rough-hewn stone, sloping gently downwards towards the sea. Kara’s breath ghosted against the back of Lena’s neck, close enough to catch her if she should collapse, and she quickly explained the plan.

 

            J’onn would hitch the horse to a wagon full of book supplies and leave the city, free to be searched without fear, meet them at the cliffs and then drive them towards the forest. They’d be able to recuperate then, cobble together a stronger plan once Lena could endure the long trek necessary to undertake it. On the off-chance that he was caught, someone linking him to the events of the day before and the battle with Lillian, they were to make for the road and camp in the sparse copses of trees and hope he wasn’t detained for long.

 

            Still, it was a long walk, the walls suffocatingly close, and Lena’s entire body ached as she shuffled along, the cold emanating from the rock bed making her even stiffer as she shivered. 

 

            Eventually, the smell of damp stone was cut through by the freshness of salt, and a distant roar grew steadily louder until the smoothly carved floor gave way to the rough, natural formation and they stepped out into a cave.

 

            Extinguishing the small flame, Lena blinked at the blinding brightness of the pale winter sky beyond the mouth of the cage and sat down on a boulder as she breathed. Pain lanced through her and Kara dropped to a crouch, fumbling for a waterskin, which she offered up to Lena with a trembling hand.

 

            “Thank you,” Lena rasped, taking a large mouthful, soothing her dry throat as she swallowed. Her hands shook so much that it dribbled over her chin and splashed onto the folds of her cloak.

 

            Kara gently took it back and took a sip too, before pushing herself to her feet. Lena tried to stand up but winced and Kara placed a hand on her shoulder.

 

            “You should rest a moment.”

 

            “It isn’t safe,” Lena said through clenched teeth, her ribs aching as she strained to stand up, before collapsing on the rock in defeat.

 

            Her face seemed to drain of what little colour it had, her shoulders rising and falling with the rapid pace of her breaths, and Lena wiped the back of her hand against her warm forehead. 

 

            “My ribs,” Lena gasped, “it is my ribs that trouble me.”

 

            “It’s more than your ribs,” Kara sullenly murmured, a foul mood overtaking her as she looked at Lena’s face.

 

            She’d wiped away the blood and sweat and dirt in the night, cleaning beneath what few fingernails were left and wiping blood from the palms of Lena’s hands. J’onn had bound the free-flowing wounds and tightly wrapped Lena’s chest to keep her ribs in place, but it was excruciating nonetheless, and her left collarbone was left unbound, perhaps the most painful of all.

 

            Wiping at her split cheeks, Lena sniffed and cleared her throat, before forcing herself to her feet, teeth grit with determination.

 

            “I can assess the damage later,” she gamely replied, giving Kara a thin smile as she swallowed the taste of bile, blinking back black spots. “For now, we walk on. I should like to be in the woods before nightfall. In my own bed. A winter’s night is a bitter thing, and I’ve had my fill of bitterness. Come.”

 

            She took Kara’s hand and tugged her towards the mouth of the cave, where they ducked through and took the frosted rocky path down to the golden sand. It was a blustery day, the wind so cold that it stole the air from their lungs and burned their throats, yet the briny smell was invigorating, especially to Lena after the dank cell she’d been shoved into.

 

            Sliding down the wet sand dunes, sparse grass and shrubs bowing to the gales blown in off the coast as choppy waves thundered to the shore, she felt better in her soul. The gritty feeling of sand as it splattered her cloak and hands and skirts, the frigid spray of seawater that was carried by the wind, and the cry of gulls wheeling around the bay of the nearby harbour were soothing to Lena’s soul. If she was dead, this would be death. Free, as the natural cycles of life progressed.

 

            She wasn’t dead though, and they lay exposed on the small strip of beach as they bundled themselves up against the wind and pushed through. They would need to hurry if they didn’t want to be caught out in the elements; the sky overhead was steely grey and spoke of snow.

 

            Kara led, following the directions J’onn had left out for them, and they didn’t stop, save for a sip of water each and to split a fruit roll, still warm in the middle. Lena couldn’t remember eating anything so good, her stomach shrivelled to nothing and savouring the sweetness of currants, even as it ached for more. 

 

            The weather delayed them a short while, as did Lena’s limping and shortness of breath, but soon enough they reached the steep path cutting through the cliffs, the switchback trail of wild goats and fishermen barely visible against the rough grey stone. It shone with hoar frost from the night, not yet melted in the weak sunlight of the day, and both women were cautious as they climbed, Lena taking the lead, as if Kara would be able to stop her falling to a treacherous death if she slipped off the narrow track.

 

            Cresting the top, Kara scrabbled at the loose shale and tufts of hardy grass as she crawled on all fours, before pushing herself to her feet. Breathless and covered in scrapes, their fingertips raw from the rough rock, they leaned heavily on each other and Kara pressed a gentle kiss to Lena’s temple as a shiver wracked her.

 

            Close to the edge of the cliffs, it felt like the wind might drag them off, and Kara quickly ushered them further away, towards the frost-covered plains of grass spreading out before them. The town was a grey mass on the horizon, and the mountains rose in the opposite direction, white foothills rolling towards them, and Kara narrowed her eyes as she stared at the dark clouds above. Snow would fall soon.

 

            Their breath plumed before them as they waited, scanning their surroundings as they searched for J’onn, and Lena’s knees nearly buckled beneath her in relief as the distant sight of a trundling cart became visible as it rolled over the top of a small hill. It was heading right for them, no soldiers following behind, and with a weak smile, Lena nodded.

 

            “It’s him.”

 

            They crunched frozen grass beneath their boots as they trudged to meet J’onn halfway, noses red and the cold almost unbearable after being subjected to the wind fresh off the sea for so long. But the sight of J’onn buoyed them and Kara raised her arm and smiled as he neared them, reining in the draft horse.

 

            “Easy, boy,” J’onn rumbled, leaning forward to pat the horse’s thick neck as it whickered and stamped a hoof. With a small smile, dark eyes shining, he smiled. “Took longer than I thought. Had to bribe the blacksmith to borrow his horse and they were searching every man, woman and child leaving. Gates are backed up damn near to the market square.”

 

            “Thank you, J’onn,” Kara breathless said, rounding the wagon and boosting Lena into the back.

 

            It was covered with an oilcloth, bound books in crates hidden beneath and rolls of leather neatly piled out of reach of the damp. Lena lay down in the back, Kara covering her with the oilcloth, a flimsy barrier against the cold, but better than nothing, and J’onn flicked the reins to get the horse going.

 

            “I’m sorry about Comet,” Kara called over the creaking sound of wood and the clipping of hooves.

 

            With a quiet chuckle, J’onn called back, “he’s a smart horse; he’s probably waiting at the woods. I’ll hitch him up on the ride back.”

 

            The flicker of guilt eased slightly and Kara nodded, sinking down in the back of the wagon beside Lena. She kept her head poked up from around the edge of the oilcloth and shivered in silence as she settled in for the trip. It was a relief to her blistered feet and frozen fingers to rest, her aching muscles going slack as she sat and waited, and although she’d meant to stay awake, Kara found herself lulled by the rattling of the wagon as J’onn made for the road.

 

            Progress was slow, but still miles faster than walking, and Kara slept in fits and starts, until the temperature plummeted and the snow started. The first flakes touched her rosy cheeks like kisses of fire, rousing her from sleep. Her eyelashes were already starting to ice together and she looked around with confusion, trying to take stock of their whereabouts.

 

            Climbing out from under the oilcloth, she made sure Lena was covered and climbed over the side of the wagon and onto the bench J’onn was seated on. Jamming her fingers into her armpits, she looked out through the blizzard with a morose expression on her face, teeth chattering as a wind dragged through her old coat.

 

            “Are you sure you’re ready for this? It will not be easy,” J’onn cautioned.

 

            “I have exposed myself now, in front of the King and court. I am as hunted as she now,” Kara chattered, lips trembling. She drew in a freezing breath and expelled it in a gust of white. “If I’m honest, it is almost … a relief. I wish it hadn’t taken such extreme actions to bring it about, but I won’t be frightened anymore. Of being caught. We’ll be together and we’ll keep each other safe and that … that’s enough.”

 

            With a soft sigh, J’onn gave her a sad smile, “Kara, I- you are brave, no one could deny that, but … it will be a hard life. A life of hunger, of danger, of isolation. It isn’t a decision you should make likely, and I’m sure Lena would understand-“

 

            “Of course she would,” Kara scoffed, “I think as soon as we arrive, she’ll try to send me back. She would like nothing better than for me to stay with my family, but we’re past that. I have forsaken my own sister for what she’s done-“

 

            “Do not blame Alex for acting in the only manner she has ever known. You are the one who is seen as a threat - do not forget that. She is complying with everything she has ever known, as unfortunate as that may be. Your sister loves you, Kara.”

 

            “I love her too, but … I cannot stop thinking about how she would’ve sent Lena to the stake, to burn, without even a single hesitation. It feels wrong . I feel as if I don’t know her anymore, that she’s too consumed with anger to be the person I love. I regret that I’ll never have the chance to forgive her, to understand her, but … it’s necessary. I started this by trying to save her life in place of taking Lena’s, and I will end it now, saving Lena’s life in exchange for leaving my sister behind.”

 

            Nodding in acceptance of her decision, he cleared his throat and then gestured with a finger to the first sight of trees, mere smudges through the flurry of snow.

 

            “We should arrive within the hour, I should think.”

 

            Hunger gnawing at her stomach and a stiff, aching shuddering, that seemed constant in the show, wracked Kara as she watched a whiteness blanket the countryside. Winter was a desolate thing in the wilds, she knew that firsthand, and her mind turned to the first time she’d met Lena, out on the plains, the mud sucking at her boots and the chill burrowing into her bones until she felt like she could hardly hold her sword. Lena’s cottage had felt like a haven then, and ever since, and Kara was eager to reach it before nightfall.

 

            As it was, the morning was only half over, and they made good time, arriving just as J’onn said they would. Much to Kara’s surprise, they were greeted by the sight of a dozen horses milling about, chewing at the sparse grass in the shadows of the forest. Amongst them stood Comet.

 

            Jumping down from the seat, Kara rounded the back of the wagon and gently roused Lena, helping her from the back. Then, they faced J’onn, who hauled an even heavier pack than the one handed to Kara earlier that morning off the back from amidst his books. He handed it off to her and then fished a small leather purse from his belt.

 

            “Here. Your last wages.”

 

            “J’onn, I- no, you’ve done more than enough.”

 

            With exasperation, he took Lena’s hand and pressed it into her palm, fixing Kara with a wry look. “You know more of hardships,” he pointedly said to Lena, “perhaps you’ll accept it.”

 

            “If you will accept my thanks.”

 

            He briefly touched her cheek and smiled, before giving Kara a hug. She felt tears prick her eyes and found that she would miss her boss, perhaps more than she’d anticipated. His kindness and loyalty had been gifts, and she was lucky for them.

 

            “Thank you,” Kara whispered.

 

            “Send a bird when you’ve settled somewhere. I would like to hear from you.”

 

            “Of course we will.”

 

            “Good. Then this is goodbye.”

 

            The thought made Kara’s throat close up, the only physical representation of her partings with many that she’d get closure from. There would be no explanations for her mother or friends, no notice, no information about where she was going or what she would do. Alex would know, of course, but she wouldn’t know where. She could search for Kara for her whole life and never find her again, and it weighed Kara’s heart heavily to know this would be her only goodbye to her whole life left behind.

 

            “Goodbye.”

 

            He relinquished her and turned to the horses, his whistle making the ears on his horse flick to attention. Taking Lena’s cold hand in hers, Kara towed her to the tree line, still glancing back over her shoulder as she watched J’onn hitch Comet to the wagon, and then they stepped over the boundary of the wards.

 

            Looking at Lena, Kara’s expression crumpled at the despair she found there. Face slack and pale, eyes wide and tearful, the air was forced from Lena’s lungs as she looked around at the ruin left in wake of the invasion.

 

            Trees were blackened husks, scorch marks marred the earth, and the smell of smoke lingered amidst the trunks, choking and acrid. Kara squeezed Lena’s hands, feeling helpless as she watched tears trace down Lena’s cheeks.

 

            “Lena, I-“

 

            “These trees were my friends,” Lena whispered, her voice breaking with anguish, “they’d been here longer than I’ve been alive, before my mother’s mother. And look at them … such violence born from such hatred.”

 

            Mouth dry, Kara licked her cracked lips and tried to seek out words that would bring her comfort. “They- they will feed the forest, and one day … one day new trees will grow here with new life. We can honour them now by ridding the woods of the malice that lingers within.”

 

            “The soldiers,” Lena rasped. “They will all be dead by now, or mad. The magic here isn’t kind to outsiders.”

 

            “They too will feed the trees,” Kara ominously murmured. 

 

            They stood for a moment, in the pale light that filtered down through the sparse canopy, the snow whistling through the trunks, and then Kara sighed. Taking Lena’s arm and putting it across her shoulders, she hefted her weight.

 

            “Come. It’s too cold to be outside, and you must rest.”

 

            It was difficult, moving through the forest, each gulley and hillock arduous, and everywhere they looked there were signs of the invasion. Blackened trunks and churned earth, snatches of fabric from the hunters’ uniforms, brambles hacked back by swords and wilted shrubs and underbrush trampled beneath issued boots. There were even bodies, twisted at the bottom of shallow ravines or ensnared in the roots of vengeful trees, where soldiers had been driven to madness and walked right into their deaths.

 

            It offered Lena no comfort to know that more death had entered the woods, no joy to know that more trees had suffered and the coming spring would be less bountiful for their fires and blundering over slumbering plants that would’ve sprouted forth necessary herbs and fruits. She walked on with a blank look in her eyes, even though she saw everything, every nick, every twig out of place.

 

            The last straw came as she led them upon her cottage, although, it could hardly be called that any longer. It was that final piece of knowledge that shredded any flimsy pretence of safety that they’d harboured, that Lena’s home hadn’t been brutally ripped away from her.

 

            Standing in the middle of the shaded clearing was crumbling, blackened bricks of her cottage. The shingled roof had caved in, the warped yellow windows shattering outwards from the fire that had been set inside. The door had been reduced to charred lumps of black in the doorway, some planks still clinging to the hinges.

 

            Lena’s knees went out from under her as she slowly sagged down to the ground and wept. Kara stood numbly by her side with no comforts to offer, her own eyes stinging with tears as bitter regret closed up her throat.

 

            She knew Lena wouldn’t be able to bear being the first across the ruined threshold, so Kara stepped forward, crossing the few short steps to the empty doorway, leaving Lena to spend all her sobs until nothing remained.

 

            The inside was worse . Everything had been smashed, burnt or splintered. Soot covered the walls and floors, wooden beams crumbled, shreds of paper curled up at the edges, the words eaten away by flame and every single jar and vial had been smashed. An acrid smell lingered in the air, the bitter tang of a hundred types of herbs and plants mingling, and Kara exhaled, her shoulders stooping in defeat.

 

            One section of the ceiling was still raised, the beams black but solid, the stone wall still standing, for the most part, and Kara moved over to it. The bed had been there before, where only wood not even good enough for kindling now lay, and Kara dropped their bags and started clearing the area. The wind whistled through the collapsing roof and crumbling walls, and it would offer very little reprieve from the elements, but it would be better than sleeping outdoors.

 

            At least the canopy overhead blocked out the snow, and the chimney was still standing, for the most part. They could have a fire for warmth, and Kara had enough burlap from the sack of supplies to rig up some sort of tent to keep off the snow and ash that swirled around. Still, it was a desolate sight, all flicker of hope that they’d be able to rest awhile dashed away at the sight of the cottage.

 

            It wouldn’t do to linger on things though, and Kara worked in silence, listening to the mournful creaks of the trees as splinters gouged her skin and her muscles ached from the heavy lifting. Lena didn’t move, shivering in her curled up position, and Kara cast her frequent looks of worry; her main priority now was getting her inside some sort of shelter, and seeing to her wounds. She’d anticipated plentiful stores, but what little J’onn had given them to ease her pain on the wagon ride would have to suffice until Kara could make heads or tails of what grew beneath the frost. 

 

            She worked tirelessly until noon had passed, her hands soot-stained and her face covered in sweat. She’d hung up her sword belt on a stump of a post and long-since abandoned her coat to it too, the cold not touching her as she laboured away, pushing detritus to one side of the small cottage until the other half could almost be called clean.

 

            It was as clean as it was going to get, at any rate, although Kara could do nothing for the soot at the moment. Emptying the content of their two bags, she took stock of their belongings, before wadding up the spare clothes in the small knapsack and setting it down. She spread out a thickly rolled blanket below the bag and then rigged the burlap so that heavy bricks that had come free from the wall in the fire held it stretched from the top of the wall, down to the floor in a flimsy lean-to.

 

            Walking outside of the tent, she stopped before Lena and sank to her haunches, clearing her throat. “Lena, you must come inside now.”

 

            Lifting her pale, battered face, Lena looked at her with gut-wrenching devastation as her lips parted and trembled. “There’s no inside anymore. It’s all … gone.”

 

            Reaching out, Kara grasped her biceps and gently urged her to her feet, “it will do. It’s too cold out here. We’ll think on it in the morning, yes?”

 

            Too weary to even argue, and perhaps not entirely lucid from her stint in a prison cell, Lena allowed Mara to guide her inside and set her down on top of the blanket. Fishing the canteen out, Kara put it to her lips and let Lena drink, before finding a strip of willow bark for her to chew on.

 

            It didn’t take long for Lena to slip into a deep slumber, and Kara made sure she was tucked in with the cloak she wore before she climbed to her feet. The snow was sparsely falling through the branches overhead, yet Kara worried for nightfall and made haste to light a fire. 

 

            Wandering through the trees nearby, she fetched damp branches and logs, using the head of Lena’s axe - the charred handle crumbling to nothing in her hands - to split the bigger pieces. The wood smoked in the ashes of the fireplace, but eventually, the embers caught and the fire crackled in the silence of the woods.

 

            Covered in soot and ash, her face streaked grey and her eyes reddened from the dust, Kara moved towards the corner where Lena’s pump had been situated beside the wooden counters. Fortune smiled upon her at that moment, the metal a little twisted but still operational. With a shallow bowl, which had bent slightly from the heat, Kara pumped freezing water into it and used a handkerchief in her coat pocket as she washed away the grit and ash and splashed it into her sore eyes.

 

            Feeling more alive, mostly from the sharp chill of the water, she drank until her lungs were burning from the cold as she gasped and spluttered, her throat numbed and stomach aflame, and then Kara allowed herself a break to think.

 

            She didn’t have a clue what to do next. Kara wasn’t the survivalist type, and all thoughts of disappearing into the woods with Lena had been fanciful dreams where they’d had a cosy cottage and spent their days picking wildflowers in a perpetual summer. Winter was not so forgiving and gracious, their food sources gone and nothing but a handful of coins to hold them over until they settled somewhere.

 

            Weary from two nights without proper sleep, Kara pushed herself to her feet and tossed a log onto the fire before she crossed over to Lena, ducking beneath the burlap and stretching out beside her. She pulled the edges of the cloak over herself and lightly rested her hand over Lena’s waist, careful not to hurt her and disturb her sleep, and then, with a troubled mind and heavy heart, Kara drifted off to sleep.

 

            They both slept soundlessly, neither of them stirring as the wind howled through the trees and the blizzard raged on. It didn’t matter beneath the trees, but outside, the landscape was blanketed, hiding their tracks and making the roads impassable. Even the forest was indistinguishable from the rest of the countryside, the trees covered in a layer of frost and snow, nestled in the mouth of the valley.

 

            It was past dawn when Kara roused herself to find the space beside her empty. Throwing the blankets off, she scrambled to her feet and strode out of the cottage, a shout already forming on her lips as her blue eyes scanned the treeline with sharp panic.

 

            “Lena?”

 

            There was no answer and Kara plunged into the woods without her coat or sword, nearly tripping over her feet in her haste. The ground was trampled from too many footprints that had muddied the ground, but she plunged onwards, panic making her palms sweat as her pulse jumped, the cold seeping into her bones and stiffening her taut shoulders.

 

            It didn’t take long to track her down, Lena’s injuries binding her close to home, and Kara let out a breath of relief as her shoulders went slack, taking in the sight of the green cloak against the dim light beneath the trees.

 

            “You frightened me,” Kara called out, marching towards Lena with a frown on her face. She shouldn’t be out of bed yet, her injuries too much for her body to bear, but her scolding died on the tip of her tongue as she caught sight of the body on the ground before Lena. “What are you doing?”

 

            “They must be buried,” Lena hollowly replied, raising her hands and crooking her fingers, before making a motion like she was forcing some stubborn thing apart.

 

            As Kara watched, the black earth was gouged by a deep furrow, which only widened, the dirt piling over itself until there was a hole amidst the roots of a cluster of trees. The rich smell was cloying and Kara stepped up to Lena’s side and then ducked down. The body had been stripped of clothes, a pile made beside Lena, and Kara felt almost sick at the thought of looting the bodies of the dead - even hunters - but realised their survival might depend on what they could scrounge up. Silently praying for the soul of the dead woman before her, she helped drag the woman into the hole, shuddering at the cold and bloated feeling of her skin, before Lena tossed in the chainmail and weapons and closed the earth over the pale face below.

 

            “How many have you found?” Kara reluctantly asked.

 

            “Half a dozen so far,” Lena rasped, wiping a hand across her sweat-beaded brow.

 

            Taking her hand, Kara gave her an uneven smile, “come. Let’s break our fast and then we can take stock of things. I find that most things look brighter with a full stomach.”

 

            Smiling faintly at Kara’s unwavering optimism, Lena nodded and raised their hands, kissing her knuckles gentle. She looked thin and far too pale for Kara’s liking, a tremor in her hand, and Kara’s smile wilted as she stooped down to pick up the pile of supplies Lena had gathered so far. Bundling them up under one arm, she held onto Lena as if she was afraid she might drift away, untethered.

 

            Back inside the cottage, Kara set everything down on the blankets and shook through them, finding thick socks and a pair of sturdy boots for them both, leather jerkins which would fare better against time and hard work, and more than enough shirts, breeches and cloaks to be used for bandages, blankets and extra clothes. There were three light money pouches, six daggers, four loads of daily rations and a canteen of what smelled like wine when Kara unstoppered it to sniff.

 

            Glancing back over her shoulder, she watched as Lena reached for a log and tossed it into the ashes of yesterday’s fire, and Kara quickly leapt to her feet. “Let me. You sit. Rest.”

 

            Nodding, Lena winced as she eased herself down onto the floor, and Kara quickly arranged the logs and picked up the flint. Before she could strike them, a flicker of green flame landed amongst the wood and she grinned over her shoulder as Lena wiggled her flaming fingers.

 

            “I forgot you could do that,” Kara quietly laughed, wiping her hands on her thighs.

 

            “It’s handy in the winter; makes lighting the damp wood a hell of a lot easier.”

 

            Dropping a kiss on Lena’s head, Kara made for their stores of food and rummaged around for everything she needed to make them something warm. First, she pumped water from the spout and used it to rinse out the cauldron, which had fared quite well, hidden away in the fireplace. It was a small victory and Kara was able to make a thin gruel from the oats and water, adding dried fruit and leaving it to thicken while she rinsed out the iron kettle and dumped in what was on hand. It would be warm and take the edge off Lena’s pain, and she didn’t have the heart for a herbology lesson at the moment. 

 

            While their tea and breakfast simmered, Kara shuffled over to Lena with the twisted bowl and dirty cloth and set about washing some of the grime from her hands and face. They’d need to wash in the stream when it was warm enough, but for now, Lena was weary just from walking a short distance from the remains of the house. 

 

            Once Lena was as clean as she could be, Kara rebound her ribs and winced at the purple bruise and swelling of Lena’s collarbone, before she tore a cloak to create a sling. Lena paled as the bone chafed, but soon enough her arm was safely tucked against her chest and she seemed better for it, the weight of gravity no longer sending unbearable pain through her shoulder and chest.

 

            They ate straight from the cauldron after that, using the travel spoons from their stores, and with the chipped wooden cup of a soldier, they took turns sipping their fill of tea poured from the kettle. With full stomachs and the warmth of tea chasing away the cold, they both sat before the fire, deep in thought.

 

            “You’re right,” Lena said after a long moment, “I do feel better.”

 

            With a weak smile, Kara grimaced, “I’m sorry about your home.”

 

            Waving a hand, Lena rolled her eyes, “it was bound to happen sooner or later.”

 

            “I find myself to blame for it,” Kara said with regret, pressing her lips into a flat line as she stared into the green flames. “If we’d never met … none of this would’ve happened. None of it.”

 

            “And I would be worse for it,” Lena bluntly countered, “alone. I can fix my home, I can recover what has been lost. I could not find another that would love me as you do.”

 

            “But … we have to leave now. We have no home, no safe harbour for us. And you … you’re too weak to protect us and I’m useless with a sword.”

 

            Lena let out a loud laugh, startling Kara, and then she groaned, clutching at her ribs. “Don’t make me laugh; it hurts . But you’re right, we wouldn’t fare very well on the roads. Not for a while, I should think. All we can do now is stay. Stay and rest and rebuild what we can in the meantime.”

 

            “We could be found.”

 

            “I spoke with the birds. They say the weather is so bad that no wagons will be able to make it this far for a week at least. Horses … perhaps, but it will not be pleasant. I believe the weather is on our side, for the time being. Winter can be cruel, but also merciful.”

 

            “Will we have enough to eat?”

 

            Pensive, Lena tilted her head to the side, “I will be able to draw creatures in so that we might hunt or trap them. We’ll not starve, my love.”

 

            “I don’t imagine we’ll see much comfort though.”

 

            With a grave look on her face, Lena gave Kara a rueful smile, eyes shining with sympathy, “you don’t have to do this, you know. You can go back, tell them I bewitched you, live out your days in peace with your loved ones.”

 

            Shifting closer to her, until she was nearly on the scorched ground, Kara cupped Lena’s face in her hands and gave her a sad smile. “There is nothing there for me anymore; you have bewitched me, in the best way possible. You have my heart, and I have yours. I will not be parted from you again.”

 

            Covering Kara’s hand with her own, knuckles cut and her fingertips scabbed where the nails should be, Lena’s brow puckered. “I just- I’m afraid one day you will resent me for this.”

 

            “I could never resent you.”

 

            Leaning in, Kara kissed her slowly, savouring the freedom to do so. She would be free to kiss Lena every day from then onwards, as many times as she was allowed. It was just them now, and it didn’t seem so bad. Even in the wreckage of the cottage, with little to get by on, it didn’t seem like the end of the world, only a step backwards.

 

            “You should rest here,” Kara said, pulling back and giving her a small smile, “I’m going back to the horses; there might be things in their saddlebags. I’ll turn them loose afterwards - no one will want to buy a horse in winter. Purses will be tight enough as it is.”

 

            “Keep one,” Lena said after a moment, “I will allow it through the barriers; it could be useful to have one around in case we need to leave quickly.”

 

            Nodding her assent, Kara grabbed her coat off the stump and slung it on before hesitating and reluctantly buckling on her sword too. Just because a snowstorm had blown down from the mountains and driven everyone inside, it didn’t mean those who were intent on finding them wouldn’t do so. With a last smile to Lena, Kara ducked through the empty doorway and set off into the woods.

 

            Her sense of direction was shoddy at best, and even angling away from the cottage, it took Kara an hour to reach the treeline, appearing on the threshold of the forest too far south. Sticking to the shadows, mostly because the forest floor was only blanketed by a thin layer of ice, instead of the mounds of snow beyond, she backtracked until she found the horses tied to the trees. They stamped and snorted at her arrival, but after a few minutes of soothing and patting, they quietened down, one by one.

 

            Making quick work of emptying their saddlebags, taking the thick, rough blankets and draping them over the back of the chosen horse - a large roan stallion - and then shoving as much of the food and supplies as she could into a few saddlebags, Kara freed the horses of their saddles and bridles and freed them in turn. She had the heartwarming thought that they might disappear into the foothills or to the plains near the sea and live out their days as a wild herd.

 

            Hefting the belonging that wouldn’t fit over the horse’s back, she patted his nose affectionately, watching the tail of the last horse disappear through a veil of snow and sleet, Kara took the bridle and led the horse into the trees. He passed through with no protest, although his dark, liquid eyes rolled with panic at the stench of magic emanating from it, and feeling a little more spirited at the good haul, Kara led them home.

 

            She arrived back at the cottage to find Lena kneeling amidst the bricks and debris, sifting through what could be salvaged and tossing the rest into the hearth, which burned heartily, making quick work of the already burnt wood. Covered in soot, she was still beautiful and Kara smiled as she ducked her head through the door.

 

            “I’m back.”

 

            “Did you get anything useful?”

 

            “A fair bit. We’ve enough blankets to last us a lifetime, I should think. I took the liberty of bringing a few extra saddles - I thought we might strip them of the leather and use it for something else.”

 

            “Very good.”

 

            Hesitating, Kara cocked her head to the side, “what’re you doing?”

 

            Frowning at a brick as she listened intently, Lena’s mouth thinned and she tossed the chunk into the corner. “I … am listening to the stone to see if its internal structure is sound. I thought we might rebuild what we could while we’re still here.”

 

            “Rebuild?”

 

            “There are plenty of dead trees to be stripped down for beams and posts,” Lena said with bitterness, picking up another rock and listening. This one she set down on a considerably smaller pile, before looking up at Kara. “I’ve been thinking … I know we have danger on our doorstep, but it would be safer to stay . Out there, beyond the forest, I can’t protect us as well. Not just now, but even whole and hale. In here … they might know where we are, but I can defend us. If not for my blasted mother interfering with your sister, they never would have gotten through my defences.”

 

            Eyebrows rising, Kara blinked, “oh. Then you mean to make this our home.”

 

            “If you would like it to be,” Lena nervously replied, “it isn’t much, I know. I can’t offer you a grand house with rooms . No proper floor, and at the present, not so much as a door or a roof, but … it would be ours.”

 

            “Ours,” Kara murmured, testing the sound in her mouth and relishing the thought. “I would like that, Lena. I would like that very much.”

 

            “Really?”

 

            “Really,” Kara grinned before jerking her head outside. “Come, meet our new family member.”

 

            Smiling, Lena pushed herself to her feet and stepped outside, her eyes shining with delight at the roan horse that made straight for her and snorted before rubbing his nose into her cheek. Laughter fell from Lena’s mouth, a sight and sound that gladdened Kara’s heart, before she pressed a hand to her ribs and softly groaned.

 

            Patting the horse, who was already enamoured with the witch, Lena murmured gently, and he was content to stay there all day as she brushed a hand down his muzzle and rubbed behind his ears. Kara quickly unloaded their new belongings from his back in the meantime, working quickly and then freeing the horse of his saddle, bridle and bit. He tossed his head at the freedom and whinnied softly, and then Lena impressed the need for him to stay in the woods before turning him loose.

 

            They worked tirelessly after that, both of them knowing the risk of exposure in such cold weather. They’d been too tired yesterday for Kara to do more than erect a shoddy lean-to and light a fire, but they couldn’t live like that for an extended period of time, even if the snow was lighter in the trees, dusting everything in a fine coating. The ice and frost would still get them, until they caught the sickness and couldn’t bring themselves to even drink water or muster up a fire.

 

            Morning was still early and there was much to do. Letting Lena lead the way, Kara followed after her as they made for a small ravine where the stream flowed. Refilling their waterskins while there, Kara watched as Lena crouched with difficulty and pressed a hand to the earth. It was mostly rock bed there, moss-covered boulders peeking out from the gnarled roots of the trees clinging to the sloping sides. With a look of awe on her face, Kara watched as Lena’s magic disturbed the ground, coaxing forth chunks of grey stone.

 

            Once they had a decent pile, Lena made it follow after them in a floating pile. Back at the cottage, while Kara gathered white wood ash from the fire into a heaping pile and mixed it with water under Lena’s direction, the witch sat before the boulders and gently teased rough-hewn bricks from the stone, until there was a large pile surrounding her and only gritty pieces of rock in her lap. Those were added to the mortar mix Kara was making, and Lena wiped a trembling hand across her brow as she surveyed their work.

 

            Anxious, Kara washed her hands and guided Lena down onto their makeshift bed. “Rest.”

 

            “I’m afraid it takes more from me than I had thought. I’m weak. This much magic saps too much of my strength.”

 

            “Then I will do it for you,” Kara murmured.

 

            She left Lena resting with the remains of their tea, long-since turned cold, and a lump of cheese and dried meat while she went out into the woods. Kara was reluctant to use the burnt trees closest to them, even as dead as they were, they offered some protection from the elements, encasing them in the shelter of their branches overhead, so she marched further out. It didn’t take long to find a strip of trees with blackened trunks and a wince of sympathy lanced through her.

 

            Despite their looks, she knew that they weren’t dead. Kara wasn’t sure how she knew it, only that she did, and they were suffering. Beyond even the help of Lena’s magic at this point, Kara looked at them and pressed a hand to the trunk of the biggest, an oak that soared high above her.

 

            “Please,” Kara whispered, a lump in her throat, “please forgive me. She will die without a home; she is badly injured too. I know that you’re her friend … I hope that means you will not bear us any ill will for what we must do.”

 

            A low groaning sound filled the trees and Kara jumped back in alarm, her pulse jumping as she stared at the tree with wide eyes, wondering if the roots were about to entangle her and consume her body, much like the old willow had once tried to do. Instead, she was shocked to see the roots wriggle to the surface, thick limbs breaking free of the frozen ground, and the old tree pitch itself forward, towards her.

 

            Jumping out of the way, Kara felt it all the way down to her bones when the tree crashed to the forest floor, the vibrations making her teeth clatter. Its trunk was nearly as wide as she was tall, and Kara pressed a hand to the scorched wood as she bowed her head.

 

            “Thank you,” she murmured, hoping some spark of the tree’s sentience was still there. “Thank you. I’m sorry.”

 

            The tree was far too large for Kara to move by herself, so she set about using the broken axe head she’d brought with her to peel off strips of bark and hack through the thinner limbs, making the work a little easier for Lena, when she had the strength for it. The cottage was small, and Kara thought one tree would suffice to erect new beams and rafters. They would have to see about the door, shutters for the windows and shingles for the roof. It suddenly seemed an impossible task, although she imagined magic would make it infinitely easier, but Kara had very little experience with construction.

 

            Covered in wood shavings, her fingertips redraw and riddled with more than one blister, she drank deeply from her waterskin and made her way home. Lena was shivering, asleep on the pile of blankets and cloaks, and Kara quickly set a fire, before turning to examine the damage. Most of the lower portions of the walls were fine, and it took little effort to gouge the weak mortar from between the crumbling bricks. Adding more water to her damp mix of wood ash to soften it, Kara started the laborious task of building walls around them. 

 

            While not very big, the cottage was still sizable for a single room, enough space for counters and tables and cabinets, a bed and armchairs and racks. Kara worked slowly, spreading the mortar over the bricks and wedging a new one on top, working on the far side from Lena, where the roof no longer existed. Soon, she was up to as high as she could reach and had to stop. She’d piled old bricks in with no mortar where the old window had been, leaving the wobbly stack to hold a space in the case that they ever had new windowpanes. At the very least, they would have a window to let in the warm air in summer, to chase out the smoke of the cottage, and shutters to lock out the cold.

 

            Midday was past when Kara stopped, covered in stone dust and grit, her shirt soaked with sweat and a chill in her limbs that she couldn’t quite feel. Lena stirred at the sound of water splashing from the pump, rinsing Kara’s blistered hands, and she sat up in the tangle of blankets and ducked her head under the burlap, blinking at the newly erected wall.

 

            “You’ve been busy. You should’ve woken me.”

 

            “You need your rest for bigger tasks, my love,” Kara smiled crookedly, drying her hands on the bottom of her shirt. “Besides, I’m woefully incompetent at building, and I’m afraid I would’ve cracked another one of your ribs by reducing you to tears of laughter.”

 

            “Them I’m most definitely disappointed that I slept through it,” Lena gravelly replied, rubbing at her tired eyes.

 

            The shadows beneath them were fainter now, and what little colour her pale complexion held had returned. Even some of her bruises were faded, unconsciously healed by Lena’s magic as she slept, and the knot in Kara’s stomach eased slightly to see her more herself. Helping her to her feet, Kara’s fingers brushed Lena’s arm.

 

            “We should eat, and then you can help me with my tree.”

 

            “I’m intrigued to know what trouble you’ve been up to out in my woods.”

 

            “No trouble,” Kara said with a despondent look on her face, “I asked one for help and they willingly gave it - for you. The last act of an old friend.”

 

            Grave sorrow darkening Lena’s face, she nodded, “then we shouldn’t waste time honouring it. Quick, let’s eat.”

 

            Sharing a loaf of bread and two pears, they washed it down with water and Lena chewed on a piece of willow bark as Kara led her to the tree. Lena faltered slightly at the sight of it, felled in between the wreckage of the violence committed, and she let out a heavy sigh as she took in the stripped curls of bark and the broken branches. They would be useful for a fire - she wouldn’t waste a single bit of the tree’s gift.

 

            Directing Kara to carry the branches and bark back to the cottage, Lena sat cross-legged in the dirt and used her magic to split the trunk into even lengths. They were long and tall, big enough to lay the length of the cottage, and tall enough to hold the rafters up. Each one would’ve been too heavy for the two of them to carry themselves, but it was easy enough for Lena to manage, weaving them through the trees with the help of the air.

 

            Kara watched as Lena set them down, the thick lengths clattering as they piled on the ground. They stood shoulder to shoulder while they eyed the cottage, or what remained of it - and Kara’s new wall, a little uneven but standing nonetheless - trying to think of where to start first, when Lena stiffened. She lay a hand on Kara’s arm and kissed her cheek.

 

            “Stay here, I must check on something.”

 

            Disappearing into the trees, she set a brisk pace, following the burning point in her mind as she wound past trunks and struggled over mounds, frost-slick moss slippery beneath her boots and her bound arm slowing her down. She came upon Alex before reaching the edge of her territory, the lingering touch of Lillian allowing her entry without befuddling her mind, and Alex startled at the sight of Lena appearing from the shadowy depths of the woods with a dark look on her face.

 

            “Leave. Now. I was generous to you last time, for Kara’s sake-”

 

            “Is she with you?” Alex anxiously asked, her voice rough and her appearance even rougher.

 

            Her face was swollen and bruised, cuts still bleeding, while the rest of her was covered in patches of dried blood. Her breathing was uneven to Lena’s ears and one hand cradled her side as if she had more bruising hidden beneath her light armour. Even as she hated the danger Alex had led to her doorstep, Lena pitied her in her state.

 

            “I will ask you politely once more before I let the woods drive you out in a less pleasant manner. Leave.”

 

            “Kara!” Alex called out, her voice cracking on the name as it echoed through the silent forest. “Kara, I’m sorry.”

 

            Hurried footsteps came from behind Lena, and, with a sinking stomach, she whirled around to find Kara storming right for her, and then past her as she made straight for Alex. Giving her sister a rough shove, Kara’s eyes burned with tears as shock flashed across Alex’s face and she staggered backwards and lost her balance. Falling to the ground, wincing with pain, Alex sat up and looked at Kara with a pained look, pleading and guilty.

 

            “How could you do that,” Kara shouted, her voice breaking as she drew in a ragged breath, “how could you do that to her - to me.”

 

            “Kara, I-”

 

            “You knew what they would do. I begged you not to and you- you just-”

 

            Struggling to her feet, Alex gasped as she straightened up, her face twisting, before she exhaled sharply. “Forgive me. I didn’t mean to-”

 

            “You knew-”

 

            “I didn’t know . I didn’t know that she was … different. That she wasn’t like the rest-”

 

            “She is like the rest! They’re like you and me, like our friends, like any other person, for good or ill. And you would be dead without her help. And how do you repay that kindness? By condemning her to the stake, after I begged you not to. You’ve burnt down her home, hurt the trees. Is that really the kind of person my sister is?”

 

            Mouth opening and closing, Alex ducked her head, cheeks red with shame. “I didn’t mean for that to happen, I just- I wanted to keep you safe. That’s all I’ve wanted to do. As soon as I realised … I cut down six of my own men to stop them from chasing you. I’m here now to make sure that you- that you’re safe. That you’re okay.”

 

            “Okay?” Kara bristled with a sweeping gesture towards Lena, “look at her! Do you think she looks okay?”

 

            “Kara, I-”

 

            Grinding her teeth together, Kara balled her hands into fists, “no, Alex. How can I trust you again? How can I trust that you don’t have soldiers following you here now? That you hate so much that you’d come out here in a blizzard to kill a witch who saved your life.”

 

            Swallowing thickly, Alex nodded in acceptance of Kara’s anger and was silent for a moment. “I have been … relieved of my duties as an interrogator for aiding a witch and murdering hunters. I would have come sooner, but I was relocated to the dungeons so …”

 

            “They hurt you?” Kara asked, a bitter taste in her mouth as her anger abated slightly and she stared at her sisters brutalised face.

 

            “They wanted to burn me too,” Alex shrugged, her voice trembling slightly with an edge of fear. “If not for J’onn-”

 

            “J’onn?”

 

            Raising her head, Alex met Kara’s eyes, her own clouded with confusion, “he snuck in and freed me. He helped me out of the castle. I’m not sure how-”

 

            “He’s a warlock,” Kara flatly replied.

 

            “I know. He explained things to me on the way.”

 

            All three of them were silent for a moment, Lena tensed to attack if she needed to, although Alex looked so defeated and tired that she didn’t think it would come to blows, no matter Kara’s anger towards her sister.

 

            “And what now?” Kara asked.

 

            “I want to make amends. To ensure your safety.”

 

            “I was safer without your meddling.”

 

            “Kara,” Lena softly interrupted, “you cannot blame her for everything. My mother preyed on her ignorance. If not for that, even your sister’s hatred for me could never have caused us this much harm.”

 

            Blinking back furious tears, Kara’s mouth thinned, “that doesn’t change things.”

 

            “I just want to help,” Alex defeatedly pleaded, “that’s all. I can’t return back to the town; I suppose I’ll have to settle down in one of the villages now. I’m no threat to you. I love you. I- I can’t pretend to understand what this is, or how you feel, but … I can’t stand in your way, so I will do my best to help.”

 

            “I don’t need your help. We’ll be fine on our own.”

 

            “Look, hate me all you like,” Alex sighed, “but you said it yourself; you don’t have a house. Don’t be foolish out of your anger towards me. I’m offering you my help freely. There’s no trap in it.”

 

            “Do what you want, Alex. You always do anyway.”

 

            Turning around, Kara strode off into the trees, shoulders hunched with irritation as she stomped over the frosted ground and disappeared from sight. Rooted to the spot, Lena turned to look at Alex and found she didn’t quite know what to say to the woman. She had seemed regretful in the dungeons, and had put herself between Lena and Kara and the guards - although Lena wasn’t deluded into thinking it was for her benefit, only Kara’s - and that was worth something to her, even if she couldn’t bring herself to forgive Alex. As was the way with nature, the only thing to do was to let someone grow, through struggles and hardships or the sunniest day. If Alex truly meant what she said, she would learn from her mistakes in time, that much Lena was sure of.

 

            Turning to go, Lena hesitated and turned back to watch Alex for a moment, taking in her stooped shoulders and bitter hardness of her face. Pity welled up again, for her injuries, which Lena had endured firsthand, for the lost air about her, with no home and no one else, of which Lena could also relate to. Letting out a weary sigh, she turned back around.

 

            “There is tea,” Lena warily called to her. “And I can tend to your wounds, if you’re not afraid I’ll turn you inside out and eat your heart.”

 

            Choking on a laugh, Alex gave her a bewildered look of incredulity. “I’m not afraid of that, no.”

 

            Curtly nodding, Lena jerked her head the way Kara had come, “this way, then.”

 

            She moved silently through the trees, with the grace of someone used to picking paths through ferns and bushes, over twigs and dead leaves, or hiding wherever she went. Behind her came Alex’s lumbering footsteps, crashing through the underbrush as snow dripped onto their heads and shoulders where it melted from the branches high above them. It was peaceful beneath the trees, yet Lena couldn’t relax with the knowledge that the woman who had readily imprisoned her walked a few steps behind. 

 

            They walked in tense silence, the walk long and tiring for Lena as her body ached and her head throbbed with a headache from using her magic. Alex carried a bulky pack on her back, weighed down with supplies and her weapons, yet she offered no complaints, despite her injuries.

 

            “I really am sorry,” Alex said after a long while.

 

            “It’s not me you need to amends with,” Lena coolly replied.

 

            “No? Is it not my fault that you’re injured?”

 

            With a breathless laugh, Lena wrapped her cloak tighter around herself, “yes, but you do not really care for my forgiveness, do you? You could live with it either way, if I despised or forgave you, but Kara … you care for her as deeply as I do. Perhaps more, given how long you have known her.”

 

            “Yes.”

 

            “Fret not, she will come around with time. And not too much of it, I’m sure.”

 

            “You do not want me here.”

 

            With a rueful smile, Lena snorted, “no. The forest has no love for you and neither do I. If she had not come, I don’t think I would’ve waited to hear you out. Perhaps it’s for the best I did.”

 

            “Thank you.”

 

            Lena didn’t reply, just pressed onwards, until they neared the clearing. At the sight of the ruined house, Alex sucked in a quiet breath and Lena’s mouth twisted into a bitter smile as she stepped over the pile of wood and ducked through the door.

 

            Kara was angrily trying to tug one of the splintered and burnt pillars from the ground with no luck, a scowl on her face as she cursed at splinters. Her expression softening, Lena smiled and gestured towards the post, clenching her fist and then raising it as the pillar obeyed, freeing itself from the hard ground.

 

            Tossing the pillar out through a half-collapsed wall, Lena gave her an uneven smile as Alex warily peered inside. At the sight of her sister, Kara gave her a cold shoulder and busied herself with the pile of debris.

 

            Moving over to the fireplace, Lena used her magic to light a fire, her eyes glancing sideways to Alex, watching with amusement as she paled and stiffened before forcing herself to relax. Setting tea on to boil, Lena refilled the bowl with fresh water and beckoned Alex over to the fire. Sprawling before the flames, her jaw clenched as she rubbed some warmth into her hands, Alex eyed Lena with suspicion as she dipped a rag in the freezing cold water.

 

            “It’s just water,” Lena said as she pressed the rag to Alex’s cut cheek, biting back a smile as the ex-hunter jumped. Wiping away crusted blood, Lena watched her shrewdly, taking in the way Alex closed her eyes and held her breath, as if waiting for Lena to hurt her. “Does my touch really repulse you so much?”

 

            “No,” Alex snapped, flushing beneath her wounds, “I just- the water’s cold. That’s all.”

 

            Nodding, Lena smiled sharply, enjoying herself as she listened to the ruckus Kara was making in the far corner. “Well, I would’ve been able to heal you better if all my salves hadn’t been turned to ash and smoke, but clearing them out will help them heal better. If you trust me enough, I could even knit the edges back together with a spell - they’re not very deep.”

 

            “You- you can do that?”

 

            “What, heal? With magic? Of course. It’s difficult, and herbs and tinctures work just as well, but that’s what we mostly deal in. Anything related to the natural world and her elements. How else do you think I cured you of the sickness?”

 

            “Did- did you really do that?”

 

            With a scoffing laugh, Lena arched an eyebrow and wrung out the rag, “of course I did. I’ve never seen someone so desperate before. It was painful to see her anguish. I think letting her cut my head off might’ve been more bearable, but alas, I’m far too attached to it.”

 

            Despite her unease, Alex let out a snort of laughter and Lena heard Kara falter, her movements quietening briefly. Glancing over, she caught a look of confusion of Kara’s face, torn between annoyance and delight at the fact that Lena was capable of making even Alex’s scepticism waver in light of her personality. But she also seemed bewildered at how Lena could stomach to be in her presence after what had transpired. Giving her an encouraging smile, Lena turned back to Alex and continued to tend to her wounds.

 

            Bruises less livid as she leached the blood from beneath the skin, cuts scabbed over and left to heal on their own, and looking remarkably less ghastly without the layer of blood caked to her face, Alex seemed younger and drawn. She didn’t falter though, leaping straight to her feet after draining the scalding cup of tea Lena had handed her, and walking over to the piles of rocks Kara was shifting.

 

            “You don’t-”

 

            Kara’s protests were cut off by Alex seizing an armful of stone and flinging it over the low wall. Neither of them spoke, and Lena watched with curiosity, drinking her fill of the tea as it pleasantly numbed her pain and slowed her mind. She spent her time removing the remains of the rafters and pillars, and once she was done, she used magic to hold the new ones in place, deep enough in the hard earth that they would never keel over on top of her. She caught Alex watching her from the corner of her eye more than once.

 

            With the three of them working in quick, uneasy silence, they made more progress than Lena had anticipated, support beams shored up with magic, and another wall finished as Lena reduced the already damaged wound down to more ash for mortar. They were all filthy, covered in soot and stone dust and wood chips, arms arching and backs stiff, but the cottage looked more like a building than a ruin.

 

            The afternoon wore on and the light waned as the sun sank lower and its rays found it harder to seep through the cracks in the canopy. With a fire in the hearth, they had enough light to keep working, aided by a few witchlights of Lena’s creation, and soon enough, they had four even walls and the support beams laid across them. There was no hope of erecting a roof that night, but the rafters and supports were all shored up - some by magic alone - and Lena was spent, her magic running on the fumes of her strengths.

 

            Collapsing to the floor, she let out a heavy breath and swiped a hand across her forehead before speaking. “I’m done. I can do no more today.”

 

            The other two women paused and shared a look, before Kara walked over to Lena and dropped down to her knees beside her. “Are you okay? Are your ribs troubling you?”

 

            Waving her aside, Lena gave her a crooked smile and touched her cheek, “I’m fine. All will be well. Let’s eat and sleep; the night will be warmer with four walls around us, and for that, I’m grateful.”

 

            “It’s a start,” Kara sighed, climbing to her feet and dusting herself off.

 

            Alex lingered uncertainly in the middle of the house, the shadows seeming darker as they coalesced in the corners of the four walls. Taking what food they had, Kara shared it with Lena and silently offered some to Alex, who waved her aside and removed her own rations from her pack, taking a seat further from the fire as they ate silently.

 

            “It’s warmer by the fire,” Lena loudly said as she stared into the flames, the lines of her face looking gaunt as she chewed thoughtfully.

 

            She heard Alex shift closer and felt satisfaction flood through her as Kara shifted to make room. There was a palpable air of unease around them, and no one seemed willing to address it, and then it was time for bed. With the bedrolls of the soldiers and proper walls to stave off most of the wind, their sleep was far more comfortable than it had been the night before, although they didn’t recall much of it. Alex rolled her own bedroll out before the fire, the dark canopy spread out above her, and they were all left to their own thoughts until sleep took them.

 

            Awaking with the dawn, feeling a little more rested, despite the stiffness of the cold, Lena was up first, brewing tea with their dwindling supply of herbs as she made a thing stew in the cauldron. The bread was harder that morning and they only managed to get it down from hunger and by softening it in the stew, but Lena didn’t mind; she’d had worse and knew what true starvation felt like.

 

            Without talking, they returned to their tasks, and both Kara and Lena were left wondering how long Alex intended to stay. It was clear that she wouldn’t be welcomed there forever, the three of them to cram into their newly erected cottage to pretend as if nought had happened, but while she was helping, they didn’t see a reason to turn her away just yet.

 

            Through the morning, they got wooden planks nailed to the beams of the skeletal roof, Lena using magic to lodge twisted scraps of metal to keep them in place, and she found that Alex was handy with the small hammer she’d brought with her to change the shoes of the horse tied up at the edge of the forest. As Kara split planks of wood into small sections, Alex nailed home the tiny shrapnel to keep the new shingles in place, while Lena set about using magic to shore up the holes where windowpanes would eventually fit.

 

            By midday, they had a house. Rough and mismatching, no fond layer of moss covering the green wood of newly cut shingles, the lower walls black from smoke and soot, contrasting with the grey of new rocks, and the chimney was not quite its full height just yet, but it was a house. There was no furniture inside, and not even a door hanging in the empty mouth, but it had four walls and a roof and Lena smiled widely at both women as she dusted off her hands and used magic to heal her blisters and scrapes.

 

            It was then that Alex spoke, clearing her throat as she wiped at her sore hands with a damp rag, her face set in a frown and her shoulders hunched. “I will leave you now.”

 

            There was a brief moment of silence as Lena looked to Kara, who was speechless as an agonised look crossed her face. “I- where will you go?”

 

            “The closest town. I’ll be close by then, if- if you need anything. I can … bring you supplies. You know, flour and fruit and- and cheese. Books, if you like, and bandages for you too, Lena. I’ll be able to find good work with the blacksmith, I think, or even as a village watchman for, you know, witches. I’ll be able to make sure they don’t take anyone that way.”

 

            “Will you?”

 

            “I will,” Alex promised. “Maybe one day I’ll be able to atone for what I’ve done, and with each innocent I save from the stake … perhaps you’ll forgive me a little more.”

 

            “Yes,” Kara muttered, staring at the ground, “perhaps.”

 

            “Until then … well, I’ll come whenever you need me.”

 

            Nodding, Kara turned to look at the house, arms folded across her chest with a stern look on her face that didn’t quite mask the way she swallowed around the lump in her throat or the glassy look in her eyes. Lena stepped inside to don her cloak while Alex packed her things.

 

            “I’ll walk you to the edge of the woods; the trees will listen to me.”

 

            “Thank you,” Alex nodded as she stepped past her.

 

            Stepping outside and into the shadows of the first trees, Lena gave the sisters a moment of privacy as they both stood before the house, neither of them speaking for the longest moment. And then Alex sighed and rubbed at the back of her neck.

 

            “I see now how wrong I was. I see how much she cares for you, how much you care for her . It pains me to have caused you both so much trouble, but … I’m glad that you’ll be happy here. That there will be no more secrets, no more partings from her. I trust her to keep you safe, Kara, but … I also trust her to make you happy, and for that … I cannot bring myself to hate her, no matter what we’ve been taught. I think … you were right. All those people in that town and you were the only one to see things clearly, and if there is one thing I do not regret that came of what I did, it’s that you opened my eyes. I hope one day you will think I’m deserving of your forgiveness, but until then, I’ll be waiting.”

 

            Having said her piece, Alex drew in a deep breath and walked towards Lena, who watched on with a frown on her face, eyes flashing a stern look at Kara, who remained still and silent. And then she closed her eyes and drew in a breath, her face screwed up as if it hurt her to speak.

 

            “Wait!”

 

            Alex turned around, a spark of hope in her brown eyes, and Kara gave her a grim smile, “I can’t bring myself to forgive you - not yet, and maybe not ever - but … thank you. Thank you for coming, for apologising, for helping us flee the castle. I know it would’ve been … difficult for you to turn your back on your life. You-” Kara faltered and let out a huff before trying again, “you’re welcome here, if you ever want to visit.”

 

            A tentative smile broke out on Alex’s face and she crossed the gap and wrapped Kara in a bear hug, tight and rough, before pulling back, tears in her eyes. “Thank you.”

 

            Shrugging her off with a clouded look on her face, Kara nodded and fiddled with the cuffs of her blue coat. With that being the end of her limits for the day, Kara turned back towards the house and Alex walked over to Lena, falling into step beside her.

 

            When they made it out of earshot and sight of the cottage, Alex let out a sigh, shaky with relief, and glanced sideways at Lena, giving her a wan smile. “You know, for a moment there, I didn’t think she was going to say anything.”

           

            “You know her heart,” Lena firmly replied, “you know she wouldn’t have let you go while holding onto her anger.”

 

            “I used to know her,” Alex said, a troubled look creasing her brow, “but it seems she’s more stubborn and willful than I’d ever known. Yet, she is still as sweet and trusting as ever.”

 

            “She has not changed from the woman you knew, only … grown, perhaps. As you will too, with time. Trust was not easily coaxed from her either, you know. Although … she was never quite as successful at killing me as you nearly were. It’s hard to believe her heart was ever really in it.”

 

            Choking on a laugh, Alex shook her head, biting back a smile as they forged ahead. They didn’t speak much on the walk, but the air between them seemed less charged with tension than it had the day before, and Lena no longer feared she’d feel the point of a sword between her shoulder blades if she let her guard down. It was almost pleasant, the air bitingly cold and the ground covered in a fresh layer of frost and snow as water dripped from the branches. Spring would not be too far off, and things would be better with the first signs of green pushing up through the earth, but for now, the peace of winter was a welcome friend.

 

            They walked to the very edge of the trees, coming out right where Alex’s horse was hitched to a low-hanging branch, and Lena lingered in the shade as she watched Alex tie her pack to the back of the animal. Fiddling with a strap, Alex lingered a moment with a troubled look on her face before she whirled around to face Lena.

 

            “I was wrong about you,” Alex blurted out, “so very wrong. I see now that you truly to care for her, that it’s no spell, no trickery. I’m not even convinced that magic is capable of that anymore, or that you’d ever use it.”

 

            She let out a soft laugh and Lena gave her a thin smile in return. “It is capable of that, but I wouldn’t. Not on her, or anyone else. Love is tricky enough without meddling with magic.”

 

            Smiling slightly at Lena’s gracious manner, Alex inclined her head, “I hope it will be less tricky for you now. Without my meddling.”

 

            “Oh, I’m sure my mother will pop back up one day, and she is infinitely more dangerous than you.

 

            “For what it’s worth, I hope she doesn’t. I don’t know you well, or really at all, to be honest, but I see the goodness in you, and the sorrow. I can’t imagine the life you’ve lived, but I hope … from now on, it will be a good one. I will strive to ensure that for you.”

 

            “It is a kind wish. I’m grateful for it,” Lena murmured.

 

            Nodding, Alex swung herself up into the saddle, having said her piece and accepted what awkward truce had come of it. Before she could kick her steed into motion, Lena stepped forward and lay a hand on his muzzle to stay him, and looked up at Alex with a strained smile.

 

            “I know the offer has already been extended, but you are welcome to visit. If you should ever like to.”

 

            Slowly, a smile spread across Alex’s face, her eyes creasing slightly at the corners as she nodded, speechless for a moment. “I would like to very much. I would like to make amends, to you and the trees.”

 

            At the mention of the trees, something akin to peace settled in Lena’s heart, the knowledge that they really were safe from Alex, that she did regret her actions and would try her best to accept Lena as she was. If Lena was upset about the destruction of her old friends, Alex would not mock it but help, and that was a bigger sign of her intentions than any she’d offered Lena beforehand.

 

            “Then on our next meeting,” Lena said drawing her hand back. 

 

            Shrinking back into the safety of the trees and her wards, Lena lingered as she watched Alex ride away, the world an empty whiteness stretching out in every direction as snow came down from the mountains and dipped the whole world in frost. Once Alex was nothing more than a dark speck against the startling white, she turned and made for home, walking through the woods with a heavy mind and a light heart, taking her time as she felt the magic stir in her bones, the threads of everything alive tangled around her as she whispered to the trees and let what little strength she had left go towards the injuries she bore.

 

            When she finally came upon the cottage, it was to the sight of a crudely made door being hung up in the doorway, Kara’s shoulders bunching as she cursed and struggled. With a quiet laugh, Lena used magic to attach the old hinges to the wood and sunk them into the stone, leaving the crooked door hanging by itself. Turning around, Kara gave her an equally as crooked smile as one side of her mouth hitched upwards and her blue eyes softened.

 

            “What now?”

 

            “Now … we rebuild our home.”

 


 

            Spring came in a flurry of green, welcome and warm as the last frosts faded and their rainy days were spent walking through the new world of green that erupted in the woods. Aided by magic, fruit and vegetables and herbs flourished in abundance, and the woods were filled with the lively sound of leaves rustling as the trees awoke from their slumber and gossiped about the newest resident of the woods.

 

            Off in the northern section, a particularly dank area that was shadowed and wet, Kara crouched as she cut away mushrooms, an eager delight to her lean face as she placed them in the woven basket. It was already overflowing with the things she’d foraged for on her wandering walk, shafts of green sunlight warming her skin as she traversed the now-familiar swathe of trees. Yellow dandelions, the first of the blackberries, sweetpeas and gorse, mint and chamomile. Over the months, Lena had taught her well about which plants were useful and how to identify them, even more so than she had before when Kara would visit, now that their survival depended on it.

 

            The few animals that Lena annually let through her wards were noisy around her, from birds to squirrels to droning bees, all of them helping to aid the forest in its growth, and Kara’s heart was light and filled with happiness as she whistled tunelessly on the walk back to the cottage. It was on the cusp of summer now, the months slipping by with startling speed, and the bitter darkness of winter was long behind them.

 

            Now, their days were spent with shed cloaks, the weather warm enough to do without, and bathing in the frigid waters of the stream, which had swollen with the abundance of snow melting in the mountains, overflowing the muddy banks. Their nights were spent huddled up in the cottage, reading books sent by J’onn as they drank various teas, the spring bringing more herbs for flavour, while Kara spun the wool sheared from ewes that strayed too far from the flock, finding that her time working a wheel to make thread for book bindings had left her with some useful skills. Sometimes, when the skies were clear, they even walked out to the plains, the wild grass brushing their calves as they stared up at the sky and Lena pointed out constellations and told her what the stars were singing.

 

            It was a peaceful life, and Kara found herself content, the hardest part behind them now. There had been attempted raids at the beginning, the soldiers still remembering that Lena had been found in the woods, but from the safety of their cottage, Lena let them cross the wards and then gently eased them back out, cloudy-eyed with forgetfulness until they made the long trip back to the walled town. It had been weeks since the last, and it didn’t trouble them like they once had. Kara had no fear of being found, for now, she was with Lena, and all was well as long as they were together.

 

            Coming upon the cottage, Kara’s face split into a wide smile at the thin trail of smoke from the chimneys and the orange glow from behind the warped windowpanes Lena had made, collecting sand from the beach on one such trip to the cliffs and melting it down until it had turned transparent. They even had curtains now, and a lovely woven rug that filled the earthen floor of their cottage, courtesy of Alex, who visited once a month, laden with gifts and supplies, putting most of her wages into it, Kara thought. 

 

            Stepping in through their new door, much less crooked and flimsy than the one Kara had constructed months ago, Kara let out a contented sigh at the sight of Lena sitting before the fire, darning their shirts and skirts and pants, which always seemed to get snagged on something . Her dark hair was as wild as ever, and Kara knew that she’d succumbed to the effects of the woods too, a feral air about her in her patched clothes, leaves and flowers caught in her hair and a hungry edge to the lines of her face. They were a pair well-matched now.

 

            “I’m home!” she announced, kicking off her boots beside the door and holding up her basket, “and look what I found!”

 

            A smile tugging at the corners of her mouth, Lena raised her eyebrows in question as Kara moved over to their table, one leg a little shorter than the other three, giving it a maddening unevenness as it rocked ever so slightly. Setting the basket down, Kara beamed as she displayed her found mushrooms.

 

            “Look! For our tea,” she proudly proclaimed. “I even remembered to bruise them so they turned yellow.”

 

            Climbing to her feet, Lena smiled as she walked over to her, taking Kara’s face in her hands as she kissed her softly. “Perfect. I can show you how to make it again.”

 

            “No luck on the lemon balm, but I did pass a birch tree and got you some more bark, for that equinox ritual you told me about before.”

 

            “You’re too good to me,” Lena murmured, kissing her again. “I found gull eggs while I was collecting shells; we’ll have a good breakfast in the morning, I think, with those sausages your sister brought last time.”

 

            They fell into easy conversation as they worked in tandem to sift through what Kara had scrounged up and store them. The cottage was in stark contrast to how it had looked when they’d come upon it, nearly reduced to ashes. Now, it was overflowing with things, perhaps more than Lena had once owned. New shelves had been erected, jam-packed with clay pots they’d made from the soft clay on the riverbanks when the water had flooded them, little vials gifted by Alex, and dried bundles of medicinal herbs. Soon, they hoped to make jams and collect honey from a good spot Lena knew where a hive had been for the last three years.

 

            They had a chest with all their clothes and new kitchen counters, already worn and stained from Lena’s potion-making and cooking. They had chairs and a bed laden with blankets, rafters filled with strings of wild garlic and onions, dried meats and salted fish and string sacks bursting with leather and wool. Things had not been so hard as they’d thought, with Alex bringing them luxuries they would not have been afforded otherwise. Even their book collection had modestly grown, and they enjoyed sitting by the fire, one of them reading aloud while the other was otherwise occupied by some task.

 

            It was a satisfying life, one that rewarded hard work and was worlds away from the stifling streets of a town filled with hatred. Kara would not have returned for any reason, not even if Lena had been allowed to return with her. They enjoyed their peace, and, together, they were not lonely. Kara could never recall a time when she’d felt such happiness, rising and sleeping beside her love every day, with the knowledge in her heart that she had freely given it to someone who cherished it.

 

            Rinsing her hands of the green sap of the plants, Kara wiped them dry and hefted the kettle onto the table, smiling widely at Lena as green sunlight swept in through the windows and the twittering of birds was just audible outside. It was a good day and Kara felt excitement kindle inside her, right beside the overwhelming love that she felt would burst out of her one day, so much of it that she didn’t know how it fit. And with Lena beside her, it felt even more perfect, the familiar routine settling over them as Lena picked up a mushroom and gave Kara a crooked smile.

 

            “Let’s make some tea.”