The hot dragon’s breath of the wind beat down on him, cooking him within his armor. It slowed his steps and gritted his joints with grains of ash and sulfur.
This blighted land had almost killed his horse. The beast’s stumbles had worsened as the slope of the land became sharp and rocky, and it wheezed with every breath of the volcanic air. He’d turned it back out of mercy, letting it find its way home as best it could.
As the heat increased and the blight deepened, James left his armor in a little pile of scorched metal by the side of the road. Without a knight inside, it looked sad and feeble. Leather straps lay limply across the scalding metal, and the black paint of his shield began to melt and run, bleeding grotesquely into the brighter colors beneath.
There was still no end of the blight when he shed his shirt, leaving himself in bare, sweat-drenched trousers and battered boots. When his legs began to shake so much that he could no longer put one foot in front of the other, he knelt and stared at the soot-black sky in despair.
If there was a god, he would not be able to hear prayers through the blight and ash, nor would he make the effort for the worthless soul of a black knight with murder in his past.
Ahead of him, the blight; a scorched and withered land where nothing could live. They had told him that once this land had been green and fruitful, before the witch had come.
Glad though he would be to die, James was too stubborn and too proud to die here on the blighted road. He stood again and staggered forward, making his goal the crest of the next hill. If he could only reach the crest of the hill, he could stumble down the next side. And then... and then he would either find the energy to continue on, to find the witch and subdue her, or he would die.
The sight of the witch’s house was a shock.
At the worst of the blight, it settled within a ring of blackened dirt, where the very ground was black as burnt sugar in the bottom of a pot. And within that, life.
He stared at the high wall of rosebushes that grew around a tottering little shack. There was a tiny lawn of long, soft grasses and a droopy apple tree with shining red fruit.
Fascination and the sight of a tactile goal renewed the energy in his legs, and James hastened down the dusty hillside and through the blackened ring. He could not linger long in the nearest ring of blight, for his skin seemed immediately to blister and chafe with something worse than mere heat, but once he had stepped through onto the grassy lawn, the blight lifted.
The air here was warm, but not oppressive, and the howling winds went around the house, leaving it unmolested and the leaves unstirred.
Stumbling in his exhaustion, James took the two steps across the lawn to the lopsided door, and pushed it open.
Threadbare rugs lay across a rough wooden floor, and rotting lace curtains sagged off every other window. The shelves around the room were bare but for a few lonely keepsakes and a tragic little clump of foodstuffs.
A scrawny, dark-haired youth sat by a kettle, knife and apple in hand and a bowl of peelings on his lap. Stopped mid-chore, he stared at James in shock.
The witch’s son, James assumed, from the way his black nails formed points at the ends, and the way his dark hair tumbled into tiny little feathers that grew in a thin pattern down either side of his neck. Perhaps a village boy who had been caught in her clutches and forced into slavery, and the long enslavement had caused his eyes to flood, becoming inhuman dark pools in his face. Worse, perhaps the lad was meant for her dinner, and the enchantment on him was the witch’s way of tenderizing the meat.
James was certain only that he was an innocent, and it was the role of the knight to rescue and protect innocents wherever he found them.
Wobbling with exhaustion and dripping with sweat from the heat, James steadied himself against a wall and tried to look like a capable chevalier.
The boy was still staring at him, shocked silent.
“I’m here to rescue you,” James said, hoping it would put him at ease and make an ally of him against the witch.
Legs giving out from under him, James collapsed onto the bed, trying to marshal his strength. His body ignored his commands to stand up again, and he resigned himself to letting it rest until there was a more obvious threat to be faced.
“Will the witch be soon to return?” James asked. His limbs felt dull and heavy.
“The witch?” the boy asked, repeating James’ words like a dullard. Shaking his head quickly to clear it, the youth set down his task and fetched a cup of water. He knelt in front of the knight in order to offer it, and James thought that there was sweetness in those unreadable dark eyes.
Grateful for the water, James took it and drank deeply. The heat and weariness of his body lightened back to what felt like normal human levels of exhaustion.
“What’s your name, my sweet fool?” the witch asked once James had drunk, a smile curving his exquisite lips.
Something was wrong here, James could tell. His head felt heavy, and his thoughts wallowed uselessly through his mind. Something had gone terribly awry, but the youth at his feet was eerily lovely, and the sense of innocence about him had not faded, so James did not allow himself to panic.
“Bond,” he answered, the long-unused name tasting sticky in his mouth. “James Bond.”
“You may call me Q,” the witch told him, rising to sit on the bed by James. “Did you come all this way to find me?”
“I have come to find the witch and bring her to the castle, where her blood will feed the earth and let the kingdom thrive again,” James answered, the words falling by rote from his mouth.
“That sounds very unpleasant for the witch,” Q said sadly. He fetched a metal collar on a chain and brought it over to the bed. “I’m very sorry about this,” he said, his voice soft and polite. “But I hope you understand that I cannot allow you to leave.”
James slept on the floor like a dog.
It took hours for his head to clear, from the heat, the exhaustion, and whatever the witch had given him to drink. While he lay on the floor, sleeping and gazing dizzily into space, the witch continued his chores around his sad little house. He made an apple stew for dinner, and sat down on the floor by James to eat.
“I don’t have much,” Q said, taking a bite for himself before offering the bowl to James. “Will you eat?”
Looking over at the bowl, James shook his head. It looked normal, and smelled good. This witch was poor and hungry, that was evident. He didn’t know enough about witches to know if that was typical.
Q stayed just within reach as he ate, but James didn’t touch him. Couldn’t touch him.
When Q finished his dinner, he tidied things up and curled into the bed to sleep. James stared into space, and tried to remember how to line up his thoughts, one in front of the next, in order to think.
“You’re the witch,” James said, the next morning, when Q got up and began preparing breakfast.
“Yes,” Q agreed, stirring his porridge without looking up.
“What do you intend to do with me?” James asked. He felt trapped and ensorceled, although his mind was clear. The chain around his neck was, bizarrely, not connected to anything.
Most of the lore he knew about wild witches was from childhood, or the warnings they’d given him at the castle before sending him out. Witches bled the land, and the only remedy for it was to bleed the witch. Kill the witch and another one would appear, born from the deathblood and the earth. Most civilized kingdoms kept their witches captive, where they could be regularly bled and just barely kept alive.
James had seen those witches, as he traveled from kingdom to kingdom. They were pale creatures, paler even than this dark-haired raven-feathered witch. Weak and sickly, and of foul temperament. When a witch died, the knights of the kingdom hunted and caught the new one quickly, while it was still young and weak.
Here, the kingdom had gone witchless for centuries. So when a witch came, they didn’t know how to deal with it, and they had allowed it to grow strong by bleeding the land around it.
James had expected the witch to be fat from feeding off the land, and glowing with health, but that wasn’t the case. If the little cottage and the deepening blight were any indication, the witch suffered as much from the blight as anyone. At least, if this was the witch, and not some trick. It was difficult to be sure.
“I thought I’d set you to repairing my roof,” the witch said, with a wry little smile.
It touched a note of humor deep within James’ heart, but it had been long years since he’d smiled, and his heart was buried beneath weariness and sorrow.
The witch gave him tools, and James went to repair the roof. He worked for days, uncomplaining, and continued to refuse food. His chain was not fastened, but yet he could not step past the little ring formed by the lawn, nor lift a hand to touch his captor in any way.
For his part, the witch was quiet and polite. He asked or suggested tasks rather than commanding. Even though James always obeyed without question, he wasn’t certain if the obedience was as magically imposed as the restraint or if he simply preferred roof repair to sitting around in sulky boredom.
On the fourth day, James relented enough to accept food. He found it tasty, if simple. The witch had only one bowl and few foodstuffs, so they always shared.
“Why do this?” James asked, one night after dinner, as the witch sat with needle and thread trying to repair one of his tattered curtains.
Q blinked at him, surprised. “Do what?”
“Why blight the land? What benefit does it give you?”
Q laughed sadly. “If I could leave. If I could stop, if I could be a normal youth... I’d give every drop of blood in my body, if I could be free of this damned curse. It’s not something I do consciously, James. I suffer the blight as much as anyone.”
“You’ve stopped it here,” James pointed out. It was difficult to know whether to believe him. Witches were cruel, spiteful creatures, and he’d only ever seen them weak and dying, which made them crueler and more spiteful. Q was gentle, almost charming, but it was hard to trust a man who lived at the center of a ring of scorched-earth blight. “The apple tree, the rose bushes and the lawn. They grow for you.”
“Yes,” Q agreed. “My little share of magic, enough to grow an apple tree and to keep a small stock of flour and sugar. That’s all, James. That’s a witch’s magic.”
“I don’t believe you,” James told him.
“Fine,” Q snapped, tangling a thread and losing his temper with it, putting the chore away again. “Don’t believe me.”
No one came to James’ rescue. Blight or no, the kingdom knew that they’d be sending knights to their death. They couldn’t afford the true witch-hunters from a nearby kingdom, and the ordinary knights turned back or died in the blight. So the kingdom starved a little at a time, and the one homeless knight with a black-painted shield who wandered into their kingdom and consented to be sent on a suicide mission had already been sent. The kingdom would starve, and James and Q would go on living in poverty at the eye of the storm.
“Children are dying because of you, do you know that?” James asked, but his tone was more conversational than anything. It was strange the things that Q did and didn’t seem to know. If James believed the stories, witches sprung whole from the earth. Q would never have been a child, nor ever lived among other people. The things he knew were stolen scraps of knowledge taken from books, often centuries out of date.
“Are you trying to guilt me?” Q asked, scrubbing pans.
“I’m curious if you even feel guilt.”
“Yes,” Q snapped. “I’m aware that children are dying because of me. I understand what the blight does. What am I supposed to do?”
“Bleed,” James suggested. His heart gave a little twinge of sympathy at the thought of bleeding an innocent youth like a sacrificial lamb, but he knew he couldn’t afford to feel sympathy for a witch. Either Q bled, or an entire kingdom died.
“Would you do it?” Q asked. “If it were you, would you open your veins to the earth? Would you give yourself up to a life of suffering, being weak and bedridden and bled three times a week?”
James didn’t answer. He wasn’t sure. If it was just the once, just that simple, he’d do it in a moment. He’d open his veins and let all the memories flow out, letting himself believe that he was saving the kingdom by dying. That would be a noble death, to bleed once for the kingdom.
But to become a captive witch, a blood-font for the kingdom, was nothing noble. It was a sad, pitiful existence.
Q or the kingdom.
“Everyone within leagues of you will die within the year, if you remain free,” James said. “And this kingdom will become one of the blight-zones on the earth.”
“Where witches live free and miserable,” Q finished for him. “I know what my life is, James. And I know that nothing will improve if I die. I can’t make myself into a thing, a captive object, not even in order to save lives. I won’t.”
In the evenings, when James was weary from the day’s work repairing the house, James read. Q had a motley collection of books, and it turned out that he was starving for someone to discuss them with.
Both of them were wary of conversations, but Q couldn’t keep himself from seeking James’ opinions on the books and digging for more knowledge to fill in the gaps in Q’s understanding of the world.
If he hadn’t been a witch, James might have liked him. He enjoyed the conversations, liked hearing Q’s thoughts. On rare occasions, he lured a weak little laugh out of Q, or felt a smile curving his own lips.
But James preferred to think of him only as a thing: the witch. He couldn’t let himself choose Q over the lives of countless innocents in the kingdom. Witches brought the blight. If they didn’t maintain the system of bleeding witches, the whole world would fall to blight, and there would be no one living in the world.
As long as Q kept him alive, then sooner or later there would be an opportunity, and James would finish the task that he’d been given.
It didn’t take long at all.
Q was flirting playfully with him as he cooked, feeding James the best morsels while he worked and James rested. He’d blossomed over the week and a half, from a shy, suspicious creature who barely talked into a flirtatious and sweet young man, completely relaxed in James’ company. Q was brilliant and interesting, and temptation had settled itself in James’ heart because of it.
While James worked every day, he thought about Q’s smile and the way Q’s dark eyes were deep and expressive. He thought about kissing Q, or tumbling him into bed and doing more. He thought about staying here and pretending that the world outside wasn’t burning, and let himself dream of a simple life in a farmhouse, with hard work for a decent living, and Q sleeping peacefully in his arms every night. Sometimes he let himself believe that was what they had, and that in just a few minutes, Q would serve him dinner with a kiss, and afterward James could spoil him with pleasure.
Q’s cry broke James’ pleasant little reverie, and he looked up to see that Q’s hand was bloodied. His knife had slipped while he was cutting vegetables, and a stray drop of blood spilled down Q’s palm and spattered to the floor.
“No,” Q breathed, eyes wide with horror as he spun around, clutching his bloody hand.
The collar around James’ neck dissolved, as a whole section of roof caved in, and the sensation of heat blasted in through the windows.
A witch’s magic is in the blood.
Understanding, James jumped to his feet and grabbed Q by the wrist, dragging him out through the door and farther, across the lawn and one step more onto the blackened ground.
“No,” Q begged him, struggling with only human strength, as the blood from his cut hand dripped down his fingers and fell to the earth.
The charred earth blossomed. Fresh growth sprung up beneath their feet and the soil a few steps away was suddenly fresh and wet. The effect burst out in concentric circles from where they stood, healing the earth in seconds.
“No,” Q begged again, helpless as James dragged him down the path, and the heat and sulfur faded with every second around them. “James, please.”
After a few minutes, he stopped begging or struggling, and let himself be hauled along with only a minimum of struggle, droplets of blood tumbling to the ground every few steps and filling the region with fresh, green life.
They walked for an hour before Q collapsed.
James looked back in surprise, and tried to tell himself that he wasn’t worried. Q hadn’t lost enough blood to be worried, but he wasn’t accustomed to travel or exertion, and the tears and blood had drained him.
Sympathetic to his captor-now-captive, James knelt beside him.
Miserable, Q sat on the blossoming ground and stared at his bloody hand, too tired to fight any further.
Tearing a strip from his shirt, James bound the cut with careful, efficient movements. “Forgive me,” he murmured, as he gathered Q’s weak body up into his arms.
They put Q in a gilded cage and gave James a medal of honor.
Now that he was a hero of the realm, James could do as he wished and go where he pleased. He haunted his way uselessly around the castle for two days, accepting generous thanks and gifts, before he went to see Q.
The room was sumptuous in cream and gold. Even the bars were gilded. Guards lingered by the door, watching their precious captive, but no one questioned James’ presence.
Q slept in a cream puff of a bed, one arm outflung and covered with angry red scabbing. James crossed to stand by his side, studying him. Half of Q’s feathers were gone, molted from ill health, and his skin was as pale as his bedsheets.
Sick with guilt, James sat on the edge of the bed and clasped Q’s cold hand.
It twitched in his palm, and Q stirred. His eyes found James and he smiled.
“I’ve done this to you,” James said, pressing his palms around Q’s hand as if warming it would be enough to warm the rest of Q’s blood-starved body.
“It isn’t so bad,” Q told him, weary but sweet. “It’s nice to have soft pillows and all the food I can eat. I live in a palace now, don’t I? And those children aren’t dying anymore.”
“You are,” James said.
“Don’t be melodramatic. Witches live for decades, if well cared for.”
“You ought to hate me,” James reminded him.
“I can’t afford to hate you,” Q said, his fingers curling weakly around James’ hand. “You’re the only one in the world who sees me as a person.”
James ran the fingers of his free hand through Q’s curls, gently massaging his scalp. “I haven’t questioned the fairness of the world for years.”
“The world isn’t fair,” Q clarified, smiling with amusement that James had ever thought otherwise.
“No,” James agreed. “But you make me wish it was.”
“You said years,” Q pointed out. He shifted beneath the covers. The motion might have seemed lazy and comfortable, if he hadn’t been too ill and weak to sit up. “When was the last time you wished the world was fair?”
“I loved a woman with dark, curling hair, bright eyes and a sharp wit,” James said. “I killed to protect her. I failed.”
And now he had failed to protect a young man with dark, curling hair, bright eyes and a sharp wit, because he had a duty to protect the innocents of the kingdom.
Q or the kingdom.
He wished he’d made the other choice.
Q’s blood went out through the kingdom in little vials. A drop here and there to reinvigorate a farm or a valley. A vial in the river flushed whole regions with life.
And Q himself lay motionless and weak in bed, sleeping more than half the day and eating hungrily when he awoke.
“I’ve been talking with the castle historian,” James said, holding Q’s hand because it made them both feel better. Q turned sad, empty eyes upon him every time James let go, which made James sit by his bedside for hours, holding his hand while he slept.
“Have you?” Q smiled tiredly. “Tell me a good story, then.”
“There are records from a hundred years ago that say witches walked freely and joyfully throughout the kingdoms. They took lovers and were beloved throughout the kingdoms.”
Q laughed, hard enough that it shook his feeble body. James frowned, concerned, and pressed him gently back down into the covers, holding him still until Q stopped laughing and smiled sadly up at him.
“It’s sweet of you to tell me fairy stories, James.”
“There could be a way,” James pressed.
Reaching up to brush light, cold fingers over James’ face, Q shook his head. “Let it be, James.”
They bled him again.
This time James watched, holding Q’s hand as they opened a vein on his arm and filled a basin with his blood, stopping only when the doctors feared for his life.
James felt sick with useless anger as the basin was carried away, and Q lay barely conscious on the cream-colored sheets with a new bandage around his arm.
He accepted juice, and dozed on and off for the rest of the day. When he awoke, he gave James woozy smiles and allowed himself to be given more juice and porridge.
“Aren’t you a hero of the realm now?” Q asked, teasingly pushing at James. “Oughtn’t you be off enjoying victory parades?”
“My place is here,” James insisted, and leaned over to kiss Q’s forehead.
This time, Q’s smile was a little less sad, and he looked a little less sickly as he caught James’ hand again and gave it a feeble squeeze.
“It’s kind of you,” he said, as he gave James another push, “but you can’t stay with me forever out of guilt. It will eat you up. Go. Forget me. Find some pretty girl to admire how bravely you saved the kingdom.”
“Guilt is the least of my reasons for staying,” James rumbled, heart flopping in his chest at the thought of leaving Q.
Shaking his head, Q gave him a wry, disbelieving smile. “What’s another one?”
Smirking back at Q’s disbelieving smile, James leaned down and kissed him.
Q made a surprised, sweet sound against his mouth, both arms coming up to tangle around James’ shoulders with sudden strength. They were both grinning as the kiss broke, and the dark circles under Q’s eyes were faded.
Noticing the difference, James ran a puzzled hand over Q’s cheekbone, studying the color of his skin and feeling like it was warmer than it had been seconds ago.
“What?” Q asked, puzzled but still smiling from the kiss.
James just kissed him again, pushing him back into the covers and taking his time with it. His tongue parted Q’s lips, diving playfully into his mouth, and Q whimpered happily beneath him, finally breaking off the kiss with a joyful giggle.
His cheeks were flushed with color, and the dark circles under his eyes were gone. James picked up one of Q’s arms, seeing the scabs almost healed and the skin warm, and showed it to Q, questioning.
“I don’t get it,” Q said, eyes lingering on James’ face instead of his own arm.
“I kissed you and you healed,” James spelled out for him.
That made Q look at his arm again, but he didn’t question it, just laughed happily and pulled James down for another kiss.
This time, James didn’t stop until he heard the shocked gasp of a guard by the door. Wary of danger, James looked up quickly, and saw the guard through a tangle of green.
Vines and blossoms surrounded the bed, growing all around them in a spontaneous burst of life and color. James stared at it, then back at Q, who was lazily melted into the covers and smiling blissfully.
Unable to help grinning back at him, James gave Q another soft kiss.
“Give us a few minutes alone, will you?” he asked the guard, who scampered off to notify the royals that something had just happened.
Very inclined to investigate how much more they could do, James climbed into the bed beside him, slipping a hand up Q’s shirt to press against the warm skin of his ribs. “I love you,” he whispered, and the warm thrum of health and power that vibrated through him from Q was tangible.
“Show me,” Q asked, pulling James down to kiss him again.
They were half dressed and tangled in each other’s arms when the door burst open and a waddle of courtiers and guards scrambled in, gaping at the plants which filled the room. Q’s happiness was spilling out to the whole castle, and the gardens were overflowing with fresh fruits.
Q’s giggles bubbled up constantly and irrepressibly as the courtiers and advisors around them debated what to do.
“I’ll take him back out to the country,” James suggested, keeping an arm around Q’s waist. “And I’ll keep him happy.”
There was lengthy argument and debate over it, but at last it was decided that if Q’s sudden verdancy was going to continue, it would be best if it didn’t happen in the castle. So they packed up food, supplies, and a couple of guards, and sent Q off to the abandoned patch of countryside where they’d found him.
On their return, flowers blossomed beneath the hooves of their horses, and the countryside unfolded with green meadows around them, growing wild and healthy in minutes of Q’s approach.
“We’ll build a proper house,” James told him, “and I’ll always be yours. You’ll be free, and the kingdom will prosper. And I’ll see to it that the castle spreads the word to nearby kingdoms. Maybe things can change, once we show them that there’s another way.”
“My misery caused the blight,” Q realized, looking around at the fertile meadows that had once been the depths of his blight.
“And your joy healed it,” James confirmed, pulling Q over for a lingering kiss.