Sarah Avery was sitting by the hearth, on a soft pelt. Delicious smells filled the air and the sound of gentle bubbling and popping came from the pot on the fire. Aunt Marcie was reading a book and across the table from her, aunt Ellie was embroidering a tablecloth, both in the light of an oil lamp.
She had also embroidered Sarah's apron. The apron was white and so was the thread aunt used. She sewed sigils in the shapes of wildflowers and flying birds. Sarah was slowly learning how to do them too. Her aunts were teaching her many things and she soaked them up like a sponge. Everyday she woke up excited to learn new, strange and amazing things. Her aunties seemed to know everything and they had a lot of peculiar acquaintances.
That late evening, they were waiting for one of them. Aunt Marcie said they were going to trade some things. It was a great occasion for Sarah to learn and Sarah couldn't wait. Aunt Ellie baked a wonderfully soft loaf of bread and sliced it. Sarah was eating the end of it as they were waiting for the guest. Even the crust was soft and warm. She was watching the fire underneath the dark pot, the swaying lines of red and orange and yellow. It almost looked like a pretty flower. She sat a few feet away from it, but could still feel the heat. It wasn't scary. Not anymore. Together with her aunties, Sarah wasn't scared of anything. They often used the fire in the hearth for their magic, not just for cooking tasty food. She cooked with fire too! They showed her how to make soup and steaks and cakes. She still had nightmares of Barlo. They scared her badly and she missed her family terribly, but they were only dreams. Once she woke up, she was with her aunties, ready to hug her and comfort her. She'd go back to sleep on pillows and under blankets embroidered by her auntie. The next morning she'd wake up and start a new day, learn new things, conquer the fire more and more.
Sarah got up from her spot, holding onto the ends of her apron. She opened the door and went outside on the front porch to shake off the crumbs. At night, the only lights came from the windows of her aunties' cabin. They lived close to the woods. All around their house was black dotted orange with fireflies and when Sarah looked up at the sky, she'd see inky dark blue dotted with white stars. She smiled, content and at peace.
Sarah's smile fell down when she heard a muffled scream.
She turned her head from where the sound came from, from the town. It sounded as though it was coming from under water. Somebody was choking, drowning, in the middle of the street. Sarah sat and watched cautiously, taking a step backwards towards the door.
Finally she saw a light. It was the light of a lamp. Then she heard footsteps through grass, calm and unhurried. Then in her vision came a boy. He looked close to her age, if not younger. He was small and scrawny. His miner's uniform was too big for him and so was the cap covering his messy hair. His small pale hand was holding onto a lamp, illuminating his path. His eyes... were empty. They were caves he;d need that lantern to explore them. Sarah knew immediately he wasn't a normal boy.
He stopped suddenly as he came close to her home. His face was sombre and expressionless, but his eyes widened ever so slightly, as though her presence there so late surprised him. Sarah waited for him to speak and so did he. Sarah felt awkward.
“Um, hello!” Sarah said.
“Hello.” He said, with the voice of a man.
“Was that you?” She continued. “The scream?”
“Not me. John Carlyle.”
Sarah knew who he was talking about. Mr Carlyle was a man her aunties warned her not to interact with. He was nasty and slimy. It wasn't a problem if the boy did something to him, but Sarah was naturally curious.
“What did you do?” She asked.
“I punished him.” The boy said, casually.
“That sounded painful.”
“It's what he deserved.”
“Is he dead?”
“No, but he probably wishes he were.”
“That's a little extreme.”
“It's what he deserved.” The boy said, darker. “People like him will never change, will never learn. They are parasites. Nobody will miss them and the world will be better without them. All they do is make others suffer. People will continue to suffer because of them, because people think nothing can be done. Or they are too scared to do it. But everyone gets what they deserve, sooner or later.”
“Is that what you do? Punish?”
“What else do you do?”
“Yes. I search for people who ought to be punished, find them, then look for the next one.”
“What if you run out of them?”
“There will always be parasites.”
“If there weren't any parasites, you'd be out of job!” She laughed. “What would you do?”
The boy looked down, genuinely considering the question given by Sarah. “I'd wander.” He said. “I'd wander up and down the mountains and look at the trees and plants and birds. I'd walk during the day and under the sun.”
“The mountains are really pretty, I agree.” Sarah smiled. “My aunties know a lot of beautiful glades where we perform spells and rites. You could go inside the mountain too with your get-up, and look at all the gold and caves.”
“No.” The boy said. “I've seen enough of that.”
Their conversation was cut off by the sound of another pair of footsteps coming towards the cabin. Sarah watched as a tall young woman was gradually illuminated by the boy's lamp. She was wearing a long dress with a vest and a coat over it, a bag stuffed to the brim, and a headkerchief. Sarah found her face pretty and friendly, even if her eyes looked a little tired. She was also surprised to see not one, but two people outside at such a late hour.
“Why, hello!” She said. “Who do we have here?”
“My name is Sarah, Miss.” Sarah smiled politely
“Oh, good! I'm at the right address then!” She said, smiling back.
“Are you our guest?”
“Indeed I am.”
The boy's head spun towards Sarah. “The Witch Queen is your guest?”
“Indeed I am!” The Witch Queen repeated, laughing softly.
“Do you want to join us as well?” Sarah asked the boy.
The boy looked at her for a moment, once again surprised.
“Thank you,” he said, “but I have to go.”
“Oh, right... Maybe next time? Next time you come around? If you finish punishing someone faster than you thought, you can come over and eat with us. My aunties and I made lots of cakes! They'll last us for a while!”
The boy thought about her offer, then smiled. “I'll try.” He said, allowing himself to sound like a child.
He bowed his head to the Witch Queen and walked into the woods, his lamp disappearing between the trees. The Witch Queen watched him go. He never saw him smile before.
“So you made cakes?” She asked Sarah.
“Yes!” Sarah said excitedly. “We got apple cake, and cheese cake, and chocolate cake, and walnut cake, and coffee cake, and meat pie, and custard, and rolls, and hot soup, and beans, and...”
The Witch Queen listened to Sarah's rambling with a kind smile on her face, as Sarah opened the door for her guest. Sarah was so cheerful despite all that happened to her. She was like a ray of sunshine, a comforting campfire in the darkness. She was going to be a wonderful witch, the kind that helps and saves. The Witch Queen will make sure nothing bad befalls her, no wretched stupid horned monsters, and that the boy will get to eat cakes too. Sarah closed the door after them. Outside the cabin grew quiet and peaceful once again.