by Rebecca Siân Pyne
Even the Fair People would not dance on such a night, their circles standing empty while darker spirits roamed abroad. The wind howled through a stand of ancient trees and into a wide clearing occupied by a central cabin, blowing over a newly dug grave as yet unfilled.
Inside, the old woman’s fire dwindled and burnt still lower, almost out. She heard the voices call her real name in honeyed tones but knew better than to listen to anything they said. Only death waited among the gnarled oaks when the Blood Moon bathed the forest in its crimson light.
She could see it through the window as she lit one more candle and then another, almost at the end of her supply. A black cat dozed by the fire and paid no heed to the voices. It had heard it all before, not impressed.
“You waste your time and mine, and I have little enough of it left. Go and find someone else to bother; leave me be.”
She knew Death would come for her as soon as the last flame died.
A less fatalistic witch might have laid in a better stock of firewood to make sure, or bought more candles, but Eirlys had always believed in fate. Not a damn thing anyone could do to stop it—might as well use the time she had left to set her affairs in order.
Speaking of which... she turned her head to look at the large bed in the center of the room. A slight figure stirred and then lapsed back into unconsciousness. The fever had broken at sunset after a fierce three-day battle for a nameless peasant lass with no kin to miss her. The girl arrived half-dead from starvation, exposure, and a lung sickness left too long without treatment, found collapsed on a doorstep unaccustomed to visitors. Part of the reason Eirlys lived in the deepest part of the wood stemmed simply from a dislike of people—the other part that they made her an outcast just for being herself and not what everyone else expected. Rarely did she make visits to town to buy whatever provisions the forest could not provide.
She saw the obvious signs made as she passed by and their gestures to ward off the Evil Eye. The townspeople did not bother to hide their distrust; they took her money and herbal potions readily enough but could not wait to see her leave again. Mothers clutched snotty-nosed children to their breasts, perhaps fearing she would snatch them away. Eirlys disliked other people’s children on general principle and had never once thought about eating one. The idea made blood fizz in her veins, the effort of not cursing them on the spot almost too much to bear.
She had never given any reason to fear but still they shunned her, superstitious country folk too set in their ways to ever change. Memories of a time almost thirty years ago resurfaced—the flaming torches and faces of her one-time neighbors contorted by hate, voices raised in anger as stupid people listened to an even stupider man who wanted her land and invented tales of black witchcraft to get it. Living alone with only a cat for company only confirmed their suspicions.
She ran her hand over the smooth, mole black fur and listened to the purr reach an ecstatic crescendo.
“Join us,” the voices whispered again, silvery, seductive voices that pretended they only wanted to be friends. “We have waited for you so long. Just come out and dance with us in the moonlight.”
“Not a chance,” she said, drawing a long, white handled knife from its sheath to feel the edge. “Not on this night, not tomorrow night, or any other.”
Where had that sharpening stone disappeared to? The girl on the bed moaned, fighting against strong poppy juice and the sleep spell meant to bring her some peace. Something in those wild, haunted eyes suggested she had run away from something terrifying. Eirlys looked deep into the scrying bowl and added another pinch of black powder to the moon charged waters.
“Sleep, child,” she muttered and then sang a little of the lullaby her own father once sang almost a century ago, stopping when her voice rasped like the hinge on the privy door left too long without oil. Concentrating hard, she peered at the surface and tried to read its patterns, calling on all the spirits of Craft to interpret what had driven the girl into the Wild Wood. The cat opened an eye and then lost interest again when the bowl offered nothing to its advantage. Not men trying to take their pleasure; the powder formed into an unmistakable shape—twisted ribbons of a summer hand-fasting and the ring that followed. Eirlys laid the bowl down before memories overwhelmed her, wiping the bitter tears away.
“We never even got so far, Eryk,” she whispered as residual magic formed the scrying powder into a skull and crossbones. “I would have married you if you ever stayed in one place long enough to ask me. Nobody told you to run away to play pirates. It would have helped if you had learned to swim first. Only you could drown on your first day at sea.”
The door handle rattled on a latch strengthened with a double iron bar and warding charms. They tried it every year when they failed to draw her out by asking nicely but some of the spirits outside were less patient than the rest.
More dangerous, the rattlers never called out her name. They tapped on the window glass with bone-white skeletal hands, asking to be let in. Sometimes, they pressed their faces to the pane and looked in at her with avid, ever-knowing, accusatory eyes. Their power buffeted the little hovel but never broke through, however much they tried. Over the years, the whitewashed wattle and daub walls and the smoke blackened bracken thatch had absorbed something of her power, making it a magickal sanctuary as well as a place to call home.
The Old Magic ruled here and had always protected its own, helped by runes of power scratched into every flat surface that could be reached.
Eirlys felt a malign, hate-filled entity trying to force its way through her defenses, stronger than the rest and more determined to possess her. For the last year, she had felt its dark presence, always in the shadows just out of sight, unable to find out why it bore such a grudge. This time, it felt personal, but she had no time to find the reason why, no time for mysteries. On the bed, the girl moaned again, reminding her that the candles would only burn for so long and she still had the final blood ritual to perform.
“Hush, my sweet child,” she reached out and brushed back a lock of sweat darkened auburn hair, the knife in her hand growing heavier. “It will all be over soon.”
The scrying bowl had already told the truth of it—what future awaited if left as Fate intended.
The Three Gray Spinners had only drawn out a short thread, never meant to get much longer: better this way. Eirlys nodded, making up her mind, even though no one asked her to justify it.
“Better for you,” one of the voices whispered down the chimney but could go no further than the hearth. It quickly dissipated as the warding magic caught it, swift as a viper’s farewell kiss.
“Better for us,” Eirlys told the empty air where it had been only a heartbeat earlier. “Better for us both.”
Her carved wooden box lay open on the only other chair to survive a hard winter, the rest of the set burnt months ago. She could see the precious object laid at the top of her pile: a homemade cloth doll in its best clothes and bright ribbons in its dyed woollen hair, still tied in clumsy pigtails. An idiot smile on the lovingly sewn features once offered comfort to a desperately sick child. Only the doll remained now. She poured herself a tankard of honey ale and then sat down again, trying to clear the onrush of memories as the candle flames burned still lower.
Knowing what must be done and doing it were two sides of the same coin—one a lot harder than the other.
She drank and then raised a toast to all those who had gone before, and all those who would come after. Age had not been kind, her body beginning to fail at last after a lifetime of faithful service, but ale should be savored—too good to rush. Her bones ached, a crushing weariness settling over her like a winter cloak until she knew the premonitions and omens had been right all along. Even the morning tea leaves predicted it.
Death would pay a visit in the night, the newly dug grave filled by mid-morning.
The banked fire little more than optimistic glowing embers now, two candles gave just enough light to get the job done, but she lit another to be sure.
Her knife hand went into spasm, sending a flare of pain up the arm, numbed, nerveless fingers more like old parchment left too long in the rain. She looked again at the smile on the doll’s face, a treasured relic of a life never really started; a reminder that once she had loved and been loved.
On the bed, the girl stirred again as the knife edge kissed her pale skin, a thin line of blood welling from the cuts.
“Hush child,” Eirlys brushed her hand lightly over a forehead that no longer burned with fever, whispering the words of a spell originally meant to soothe nervous horses in a thunderstorm. It worked just as well on people.
A pale face pressed itself up against the glass and mouthed something too faint to hear above the wind’s howl. It almost broke her concentration as she drew the knife once and then twice across her own palm, barely feeling the pain except for a strange bird-like flutter in her chest that had not been there before. Just a little more time. She pressed the cuts together, to join a woman who had lived too long with an eighteen-year-old girl not fated to see twenty.
Hoping the magic would take hold before her body betrayed her and wasted the opportunity forever, she began the chant, her voice rising high over the noise of the wind in the trees and the rattling door latch.
They called to her again, the new presence strongest of all. Its honeyed invitations had a subtle undertone like drowned heroes bubbling in a swamp, easily ignored. Her hands moved in the sinuous power weaving to join together the threads of old magic and the new, with a little something borrowed from the edges of necromancy. The cat opened its eyes wide and stared directly at a patch of empty air, washed its face, and then went to sleep again.
The Old Gods had come to bear witness but could not hold feline interest for long.
Eirlys settled in her chair to wait by the dying fire and felt the bird flutter in her chest again, a wild, irregular pattern that might have worried her if she expected to live past sunrise. Not in this worn out old body anyway. No pain, no worry about making a good end, just like falling asleep. She drifted through her well cataloged memories to make sure they were all there and in good order.
Satisfied, she drifted deeper, her last breath sounding like her lost daughter’s favorite lullaby. When she opened her eyes again, she felt the change, like putting on a new set of clothes.
She pushed herself up off the bed, never one to lie down in daylight with a long list of jobs to be done. The black cat twined around her ankles, easily recognizing his mistress whatever she might look like.
She looked at the hearth and the corpse slumped in its chair, a cooling collection of worn out flesh and wrinkled wind-weathered skin, looking even older now that life had passed her by. Eirlys studied her empty shell without a shred of emotion and wondered why it had taken her so long to make the switch—always finding a reason to put it off for another week and then the next. Now, she wished she had stopped making excuses and done it years ago.
She had already picked out the spot and dug a grave in the sunniest part of the clearing, written a nice funeral speech and rehearsed it until she knew it backwards. Few of the townspeople would mourn the solitary old witch who lived in the woods, but she did not care two hoots about them. On the first day of the rest of this life, birds sang their morning songs; the rain-charged air smelt of bluebells, honeysuckle, and wild thyme warmed by the sun.
One last ritual remained—giving her old body back to the earth so the new one could run sky-clad along the secret trails and enjoy a second youth in the Wild Wood. A chance to start again, and this time, she intended to make the most of it.
The girl had been fleeing a forced marriage; you did not need a scrying bowl or the power of second sight to know that. Never a choice in the matter but now she had a chance to make them pay—make them all pay. If any man ventured into the woods to look for her, he would not find a frightened little rabbit waiting for him but an experienced woman of the world.
She had known enough soldiers and sellswords in her long, eventful life to have built up an impressive collection of curse words and creative threats, the ability to swear fluently in three different languages. They also taught her to fight dirty and never back down, to always finish what your opponent started or strike the first blow before they knew what hit them.
As she blew out the last stub of candle, a wisp of dove-gray smoke curled up into the thatch as a declaration of intent but also a promise. If the spurned suitor just happened to come a-courting, he was in for an unpleasant surprise. ✦