The witch had a favorite saying: where there’s life, there’s magic. There was a second part — where there’s magic, there’s death — but she usually kept that to herself.
She placed the newborn into the father’s arms. He gazed upon the babe with wonder, then upon his wife with concern.
“Why does she still scream?” he said. “Can’t you ease her pain?”
“There is still pain because she carries twins. There is a second part of this birth to come.”
The mother lifted her head from the sweat-soaked pillow and shrieked louder. The witch went back to her work.
They called the first child Heavenly Gift. She had clothes and toys and kittens awaiting her, all stamped and stitched and branded with her name. There was also further coin for the witch, to perform magical blessings for her good fortune.
Her twin, unexpected and unasked for, had none of these things. They called this girl Second Part.
“That’s not going to end well,” the witch said, but nobody listened.
Since she hadn’t been paid for divination, she didn’t try to make them.
Heavenly Gift grew up in accordance with the radiance of her name and allotted position, and duly became beautiful and beloved. She dreamed of knowledge and power.
Second Part, identical in beauty but not in regard, dreamed of being reborn.
There were things a good daughter could do, to aid her family’s fortunes. An advantageous marriage was chief among them.
Along the borders of the family’s land were two other estates. Second Part rode with her mother to both of them in turn. The trip was exhausting and beset with dangers, but they still employed the services of the witch and were protected from the worst depredations of bandits and bears.
The first estate was small and barren and had little to recommend it as an ally, but the second was bigger and richer even than their own, seeded with almond trees and roamed by giant jeweled scorpions that the fine ladies hunted and stripped of their elaborately ornamented stings. It had also been newly inherited by the eldest son, Leon, after the death of his mother.
Leon was dark-eyed and graceful, and Second Part was instantly captivated.
“How do you like the looks of my daughter?” Reyna asked Leon, and his smile was all it took to conclude arrangements between them.
Second Part was entranced, and thought Destiny must be finally smiling upon her, just as warmly as Leon had. “This marks the turning-point of my life,” she said.
The witch, reading the entrails of a cat-slaughtered crow, agreed with her assessment. “Just not in the way you think,” she said. But the girl was already dancing away, her eyes shining, and did not stay to hear the detail.
The dowry was confirmed, and the wedding preparations made, with Reyna’s customary speed and efficiency. Within a month, Leon was married to Heavenly Gift.
Second Part’s purpose in the affair, as she now learned, had been to serve as an animated portrait of her sister — a reflection of the reality being promised. Heavenly Gift, of course, could not have been risked on the journey.
Reyna was pleased, said the girl had performed her function well and would be rewarded. A new horse, perhaps.
Second Part was greatly surprised by this, which in turn surprised Reyna and everyone else. They’d thought she understood how things were. They’d thought it was obvious.
The only one not taken aback by any of it was the witch. She had a lot of cats — and, therefore, a lot of entrails — and was never surprised by anything at all.
The joined estates prospered. Reyna congratulated herself on the successful execution of her plans.
Heavenly Gift bloomed under her mother’s tutelage and her husband’s admiring gaze. She devoted herself to learning the management and improvement of the estate.
Second Part dressed in mourning black, which rather suited her, and chased scorpions on long hunts across the forest — although she never came back with any jewels.
Leon watched her from astride his fine gray mare and wondered quite how this had all come to pass. But his lands had doubled, his purses overflowed, and the gray mare was really very fine indeed. And Heavenly Gift was so beautiful, her face identical to the one he had fallen in love with. Reyna assured him that he would soon forget it was not actually the same.
The crows hid from the cats and the witch sat in her cottage, smoking her pipe and waiting.
There were things a good daughter could do, to aid her family’s fortunes. Being apprenticed to a witch was second among them.
“You see?” Reyna said, as she kissed her daughter goodbye. “All that is fitting is good.”
It did not seem fitting to Second Part. It did not seem fitting at all.
But she said, “Yes, Mama,” and went as she was bid.
The witch taught Second the knowledge of plants and herbs, and the working of the body. She taught her all the ways of magic that did not, in fact, require magic at all.
“These ways may take more effort, but they are safe,” she said.
“And real magic is not?”
The witch shook her head. “No, child. The only real magic comes from death. This is something I would not advise you to learn.”
Second considered this. “Teach me anyway,” she said.
The witch showed Second the reading of things in entrails and the finding of things in bones. She showed her the blood-wards of protection against bandits and bears, and the totems that could be made out of feathers and skin and scorpion’s stings. She showed her the power formed in sacrifice.
The cats were kept very busy.
Second came to understand why her sister had dreamed of knowledge and power. They were heady things to own. She studied hard at her lessons, and practiced them well. The crows took wing and the cats had to find other prey. But they came to love her like one of their own.
Leon, meanwhile, had come to understand that identical did not mean what he’d believed — or perhaps more precisely, wanted to believe — that it did. Reyna’s assurances had not come to pass, and he could not forget.
He went to the witch’s cottage to ask what he should do, but the witch refused to give advice because nobody ever took it. “People will do what they wish,” she said. “However misguided or dangerous they know it to be.”
Second gazed at Leon, and he gazed back.
The cats yowled, because there were always entrails to read if you were determined enough to find them. They could have parted the lovers with bad omens and sharp claws, but they were suckers for a good story, and so they left them alone.
Leon told his wife he was learning to track scorpions on the fine gray mare. Heaven, distracted by her studies and duties, simply kissed his cheek and wished him good hunting.
The mare never learned to recognize a scorpion’s trail. But she learned the journey to the witch’s cottage very well.
“I have found a way,” Second announced, “That we can be together.”
Leon looked around the cottage nervously. Reyna and Heaven would not come here, but they had spies who were not so circumspect. “They would see us both dead, first. You know that.”
Second smiled and kissed him. “I do,” she said. “But there is magic formed in death, and even more in sacrifice.”
Her words did nothing to calm Leon’s nerves. But he loved her, and so he bade her continue.
“The magic will give me what I have always dreamed of,” she said. “Rebirth. It will allow me to open death’s gate, and pass back through to the other side. After my death I will return, and awake again as a babe in arms.” She clutched him tighter. “And it will let you through the gate with me, if we welcome death together. We will have new bodies, new lives. A second chance, to grow and live as we choose.”
Leon sank down onto the witch’s stone bench. The years had not been kind to his bones, and the thought of starting over, of being young again, was not an unwelcome one.
He asked the witch if this would be possible, and she told him yes.
He did not ask her if would be wise. But then, she would not have bothered to tell him no.
“You know what you must do?” Second asked.
Leon nodded, solemn-eyed. The witch had provided her very best ceremonial dagger for the occasion, and he clutched it in one trembling hand.
Second raised both hand and blade until the tip was resting against her chest. “One swift stroke,” she said. “And then turn it on yourself.”
Leon tried to speak, but no words formed.
“Do not falter, my love. You must send me to Death, and follow straight after. Then we will be reunited.”
“I will do what I must,” he finally said, but his voice shook.
Second glanced at the witch, who nodded. Should it prove that Leon lacked courage, she would provide it for him.
Leon closed his hands around the dagger’s hilt and leaned down for a final kiss.
“It is true, then,” Second said. “You have betrayed me.”
Leon frowned, because her words made no sense. Then he realized that she had not spoken. It was Second’s voice, but the words had not issued from her lips.
As a mystery, it was easily solvable. Who else was there, that could speak with his love’s voice?
They turned together and faced Heavenly Gift. She had climbed the wall around the witch’s cottage, and her dress was torn and flecked with dirt.
“How can you do this?” she said. Her voice trembled as much as her husband’s had.
Second smiled. “How? Because I have learned the ways of magic while you sat on cushions and waited for servants to bring you sweetmeats. You have had everything given to you, sister, including that which should have been mine. Now I will take it back. I will come second to you no longer.”
“Stand aside, husband,” Heaven said, and such was the power of her expectations that Leon did as she commanded.
The cats yowled, for they had been promised blood. “Patience,” the witch said.
Heaven tore the dagger from Leon’s hand and whirled around, just as Second rushed forward.
“You will not — ” Second began, but the rest of her own command was choked off as her momentum carried her onto the point of the blade.
It slid smoothly through her dress, her skin and her flesh. The knife had long ago learned to love the taste of a human heart, and it sought its prey as ruthlessly, as efficiently, as any witch’s cat.
Second’s lips parted, but no further sound escaped them. She stood still, her eyes clouding, then fell to the ground.
In the endless moment that followed, even the cats were silent.
Heaven stared down at the unmoving body. “I did not mean for this to happen,” she said. Her voice was thick with tears and no longer sounded anything like her sister’s. “I wanted to stop her. I did not want her death.”
She dropped the dagger and held out her dripping hands to the witch. “Can you not save her? Is there nothing to be done?”
“Patience,” the witch said.
Leon stared at the scene before him and struggled to understand it. The witch’s lush green grass ran red, and the cats frolicked happily. His senses swam and clouded, just like Second’s unseeing eyes.
He reached down and retrieved the dagger from the sodden ground. “You have stolen my love for the last time,” he said, and yanked Heaven’s head back by the hair. His other hand drew the blade smoothly across her throat.
More blood flowed, and the cats yowled their approval.
Leon thrust the body away from him and fell to his knees. “What have I done?” he breathed.
“To look at it one way,” the witch said, “you have avenged the killing of your lover. To look at it another way, you have completed the contract: there were two deaths, as arranged. One has killed, and died in return. This was the offering, and it will be accepted. Rebirth will be granted to both sisters.”
Leon stared at her, comprehension finally filling his eyes his horror.
The witch shrugged and lit her pipe. “Or, to put it a third way, you truly screwed it up.”
When Reyna’s men came, the witch told them the truth about what had happened in her garden. There was little point trying to pretend things were other than they were: women like Heavenly Gift did not slit their own throats.
They looked for Leon, but she told them he was gone, along with her best horse and her second-best cat, and a basket full of bones.
“What is the purpose of these bones?” the chief of guards asked her. “What magic are they designed to perform?”
“They are for a specific form of divination,” the witch said. “They will help him find things.”
“What things? Give me the truth, old woman. What is it that the murderer seeks?”
The witch lit her pipe and inhaled its sweet smoke. “Babies,” she said, and the men turned pale.
“We must pursue this black-hearted rogue,” the chief said. “We must find him before he can unleash any further depravity upon the heads of innocents.”
“We must,” his men agreed. But they looked at the bodies while they remounted their horses, and when they rode away it was not in the direction Leon had taken.
In a small village a hundred leagues away, there lived a young couple. They were swordsmiths of some renown, and wanted for neither love nor money. What they did want was a child, but for years they had waited for the quickening in vain.
The eventual conception, therefore, was cause for a mighty celebration. The child was active all throughout her time in the womb, and the couple were thrilled. “She will be a fine, strong, girl,” the mother said, pulling her husband’s hand across her stomach. “Feel how she kicks, how full of life she is.”
But when the girl was born, she was not the lusty, squalling creature they had expected. She was beautiful and healthy, yes — and they loved her dearly, yes. But she was quiet and reserved, and did not laugh and gurgle the way other babies did. She would not be amused by songs and games. Instead she lay motionless in her crib, her little arms by her sides.
Her appetite was healthy and her body grew well, but she neither spoke nor answered to her name. The parents worried, but the wise woman examined her and pronounced her eyes clear and her mind strong.
“Her development is unusual,” the wise woman said, “but not unheard of. She is the second child I have seen behave this way.”
For the first time, the little girl smiled.
She liked to be outside, where she would patiently watch the horizon for hours. She also liked to sit in the smithy, and would give the blades the kind of loving looks she would never bestow upon her parents.
When the stranger came for her, with his black horse, his red cat and his bag of bones, they told themselves it would be better not to fight. The stranger was old but he carried the scents of death and magic, and who knew what harm he might do if they stood in his way? He might hurt the girl, if they tried to resist. It would be for her sake, for her own good, if they allowed him to take her.
So when she ran to him and he swept her onto the horse, they simply went inside their cottage and closed the door.
Heavenly Gift’s second childhood was not as charmed as her first. Her new parents were not bad people, but neither were they rulers of a fine estate. She had few clothes and toys, and no jewels or kittens. She was still beautiful and golden, but there was no joy in her heart or love in her eyes. Neither of these things had served her well before and she set aside no space for them in her new life.
Instead she paid attention to her lessons, and listened avidly to stories of her home. It was a long way away, but she was young and strong — again. She would find her way.
She knew who she was, even if nobody else did.
“She is an old soul,” her teacher said, and her parents nodded. And tried to pretend they believed this was a good thing.
The witch welcomed Second as she had done before, but shook her head at Leon. “Reyna’s guards have not forgotten,” she said. “Their duty remains unaltered and they still search for you. They come here regularly, to ask if I have news of where you are.”
Second clung to him, but Leon gently pried away her tiny hands.
“Do you no longer love me?” she cried. “How can this be so?”
“It is not,” he said. “My love for you is undimmed. But look at us — I am an old man, and you are but a child. I must settle for the love of a grandfather, now.”
“No,” Second said.
“Yes. We cannot be what we were. It falls to me to protect you, and I can only do that by leaving you.”
“No,” Second said again. “The magic I have is also undimmed, and will serve us again. You know what you must do.”
Leon shook his head, and shrank from her. “No, child. No.”
“Yes,” Second said, closing his fingers around the hilt of his dagger. “We will not be interrupted this time, we can proceed as we should have before. My second death will save us both.”
She leaned closer, her breath sweet and warm against his cheek. “We will be of an age once more, and can have the love we deserve. No more talk of grandfathers.”
The witch’s cats yowled and the crows fled their high branches.
“The guards,” the witch said. “They will come shortly.”
Second leaned her head backwards, exposing the smooth flesh of her throat. ‘Quickly, my love. Do what you know you must.”
Leon stared at the wicked edge of the dagger, then at the witch. She shrugged. “You must choose, and soon,” she said.
“It is my wish,” Second said, raising his hand and the blade it clutched.
“Hold!” cried a voice, and the hooves of the guards” horses struck a frantic rhythm on the cobbles outside the cottage.
“Do not ask me to hurt you,” Leon whispered, but his hand was already moving. It sliced, drawing an arc through air and flesh. Second fell, her body so light and small in his arms.
“You will need to finish it now,” the witch said. “One way or the other.”
Leon raised his dripping knife again, and drew another arc — downwards, this time, into his heart.
The guards reined in their panting horses and surveyed the garden.
“If we could not prevent the first slaying,” the leader said, “Then maybe it was fitting that we did not prevent the second.” He spat on the ground next to Leon’s body. “At least now it is over,” he said. “The monster will cause no more deaths.”
The cats edged closer to the grass, their little pink tongues darting out.
The witch reached for her pipe. “We”ll see,” she said.
When Heaven finally attained her home, she did not recognize it. Reyna had died, and with no daughters to inherit the land, it had been divided between the guards.
The witch’s cottage, however, remained unchanged.
“She lives, doesn’t she?” Heaven said. “My sister. I can feel the movement her life makes in the air.”
The witch nodded. “Yes. She lives.”
“How many? How many new lives will she have?”
“Her lives will be as numerous as her deaths. That is the way of the magic.”
“And he who was my husband? He lives also?”
“Yes. Who dies with her will awaken when she does. That is also the way of the magic.”
“This is what she learned from you?”
“Then teach it to me also. I have no gold or jewels any more, but I will pay any other price you ask.”
The cats yowled. “Feed them,” the witch said, “and I will give it some thought.”
Heaven looked at the cats, who twined themselves around her ankles. They were very large cats indeed. Or maybe she had just forgotten that she herself was smaller now.
“Where are their bowls?” she said, then caught herself. She knew what witch’s cats ate. That, she hadn’t forgotten.
She crouched down and held out her hands, letting the cats carve their names into her palm with their sharp little tongues. They lapped at their designs, then went back to sleep at the witch’s feet.
The witch treated Heaven’s hands with salve and bound them with fresh linen. “I will teach you,” she said.
Second learned, her third time as a babe in arms, to behave better. Blend in better. She learned to gurgle and coo, to smile and wave her fat little limbs whenever she was observed. And when she was not, she closed her eyes and thought of Leon, and how she would cast the bones to find him, and the life they would finally have together.
She waited and dreamed, and was content — even when the village cats nipped at her hands and feet, even when they yowled and draped her with the entrails of bandits and bears.
The cats shrugged, in the graceful way that only cats can, and went about the rest of their business.
The news spread rapidly through the villages: a babe had been snatched! A fine young boy-child, lifted out of his bed and spirited away into the night.
Some people spoke of fairies and goblins, some of a girl on a horse, a red cat riding in her lap. Some said she was a witch, some said she was an avenging angel from Heaven. Some said she was still looking for children to steal.
“That’s nothing but the scaremongering gossip of idle men with too much time on their hands,” said one young father. He had no time for stories of witches and their cats. He had bread to bake and a girl-child of his own to feed. Those were his worries — real things, not rumors and fancies.
But he ran home from the bakery anyway, because sometimes the fanciful stories had bones of truth, and while he didn’t believe in fairies and spirits, he did believe in bandits and slavers and ravenous bears.
His door stood open when he returned, his neighbors pale-faced and wide-eyed. A horse pawed the ground in front of his cottage and a red cat yowled at the crows on the roof.
And a young woman, golden-haired and cold-eyed, carried his little girl out of the house.
The baby, normally so even-tempered, yowled even louder than the cat.
“Leave my child alone,” the young father said. His hand reached for the short sword he carried at his belt.
The woman smiled and shook her head, and though he groped for where the blade should have been, his hands found only air.
“In truth, this child is not your own,” the woman said. “She is a changeling, and would have left you of her own accord as soon as she reached an age to do so. I am saving you time, trouble, and heartbreak by taking her now.”
“No,” the father said, but his voice wavered. The baby seemed sweet-natured, yes, but hadn’t lightning scorched the ground at the moment of her birth? Hadn’t the crows fallen dead from the skies? Hadn’t the village cats refused to kill? Serious omens all. His wife, given her own sweet nature, had refused to give credit to such things. And he’d agreed, of course. Fanciful notions! But still, he’d sometimes wondered how shallowly those bones of truth might be buried.
“Be at ease,” the young woman said. “We are family, this little one and myself.” She cradled the child in the crook of her arm. “She is my sister, and I have long looked forward to our reunion.”
The red cat leaped onto the woman’s shoulder and leaned down towards the baby. It blinked dark eyes at her and licked her nose with its bright pink tongue. The baby screamed louder.
“No,” the father said, but his voice had not grown firmer. The cat! Didn’t they say cats always knew their own?
The woman bowed her head to him. “We will disturb you no further,” she said, and took both baby and cat outside.
“No,” the father said, a third and final time, but his voice only whispered into the empty air.
The witch peered into baby Leon’s eyes and prodded his gums with the sharpened nail of her little finger. His cries were lusty and clamorous.
“He will grow up strong and healthy,” she said. “A fine young man.”
“You may keep him,” Heaven said, “if you wish. He can light your fires and feed your cats.”
“I have no need of boys to do that.”
“Then sell him to the traders, or apprentice him to the mines. I care not for how his life unfolds, as long as it no longer consists of love and ease.”
Second lay on the rug where she’d been left, quiet and still. But her eyes tracked Heaven’s movements.
“And my sister?” Heaven said. “Will she grow up to be as beautiful and deceitful as she was?”
The witch picked flecks of meat from her teeth with her pointed fingernail. “Do you ask me to look into the future for you?”
Heaven smiled, and the cats all fled the room. No, she did not need that. She already knew the answer to her question.
Second would not grow up to be the cunning, artful girl she had once been. Second would not grow up at all.
Word arose throughout the land of a new witch and a new magic, and a way to cheat age, infirmity, and death.
Word arose, and word spread.
Heaven nodded to her servant, and the girl thumped the castle gate with the hilt of her sword.
It opened slowly and the doorkeeper, a red-haired ogre of a man, boomed, “State your name and business.”
The servant said, “We have an appointment with Lord Arlan. My name is Jennet and this is — ” but by then the doorkeeper had seen Heaven, and he held up one huge, rough-scarred hand.
“We know who she is,” he said, and his voice had lost much of its previous power.
He bowed his head and stood aside as Heaven rode into the courtyard. “I will take you to my master,” he said.
Heaven slipped from her horse and nodded again to her servant, who lifted the woven basket from its saddle-hook and carried it carefully up the stone stairs to Lord Arlan’s chamber.
A long wooden table stood in the center of the room, laden with bowls of bread and fruit. Heaven popped a fat purple grape into her mouth, then pushed the bowl aside.
“Come, my Lord,” she said. “Your hospitality is welcome, but we have business to transact, do we not? I assume you have not changed your mind?”
Lord Arlan gave Heaven a shallow bow, but he looked as though the answer to her question was far from settled. He lowered himself carefully into an ornate jeweled chair.
“You appear to be in pain, my Lord,” Heaven said. “Are you ill?”
He waved a hand. “It is not sickness or injury that plagues me, witch, it is age.” His eyes searched hers. “In the villages they say you are named for truth — that you are a gift that reverses all the destruction of time. Is this fancy, or can your healing magic really do as they say?”
“It isn’t healing magic,” she said. “But yes, it can do as you wish. I can give you a new lifetime, if you desire. You will be reborn and live your years anew.”
“But where? In what circumstances?”
“That, I cannot control. But the bones will guide me to you, and I will return you home to your rightful place.”
Jennet placed the covered basket on the floor at Heaven’s feet, and Arlan pointed at it. “What is that? What do you have in there?”
Heaven smiled, rocking it gently with her boot. “You know what it is.”
“I do not,” he said, but he could not meet her eyes.
Heaven nodded to Jennet, who lifted the veil from the basket. Heaven brought out a knife from the folds of her coat and held it out, hilt first, to Arlan.
He blanched. “What is this?” he said, and his voice had shrunk.
“Oh, come,” Heaven said. “Do not pretend such fainting innocence. This is death magic, Lord Arlan. You know what it must entail.”
She proffered the blade again. When he stayed immobile, she laid it upon his knee.
“You cannot expect — ” he said, then trailed off.
“I expect nothing. I am here at your bidding. What happens next is your choice. But if you choose to proceed, there must be sacrifice. That is the way of things.”
“You are sure?”
Heaven gazed down upon him. “Do you doubt me, Lord Arlan?”
Arlan shifted in his chair and kept his eyes cast down. “No. Of course not. You are just — so young, to be so powerful a witch.”
“I sell fresh life,” Heaven said. “Is my own not the proof you desire?”
Arlan looked at the knife. “Is there no other way?”
“No. Fresh life demands fresh death.”
“But to kill a child — ”
“Be at ease, my Lord. My sister loses naught. The magic renews her also.”
Arlan gripped the blade in palsied fingers. “This is meant to give me ease? That this is the nature and extent of the child’s existence in this world?” His throat worked, the loose skin around his jowls trembling as he swallowed.
Second lay unmoving in the basket. Her eyes focused only on the ceiling, and she did not react when Arlan’s hand touched her own.
He withdrew and directed a dismayed look at Heaven. “Is this not worse for her than true death, witch? Is this not worse?”
Heaven simply smiled and guided his hand back to the basket. She did not contradict him.
The child sat cross-legged in her cage made of bones and scorpion stings. The jewels threw reflected light upon her face, creating for a moment the illusion of expression. But it faded with the light, and the child sat as still as carved stone.
Jennet brought her toys and sweetmeats and fat purple grapes, but she paid no attention to any of them.
“You should go out to the estates,” Heaven told her. “Spread the word of our services. It is time we found a new client.”
“But we have many bags of gold, as yet untouched.”
Heaven smiled. “I don’t do this for the money, girl. Now go.”
Jennet gathered her travelling cloak and her sword. She checked on the child, who still sat in the center of the cage, staring at the bones with unwavering concentration.
Jennet knelt on the floor and tried to catch her gaze. “Upon what do you meditate, all these long hours? What is it that so captures your thoughts?”
For a long while there was no answer, but then the child turned her head, ever so slowly, and her lips formed a word. Jennet expected it to be escape, or perhaps freedom.
But when the child finally spoke, what she said was “Death.”
The new client was a merchant from the outer islands, a woman with a bowed frame and ashy skin. “I am Kevis, ‘she said. “Your mistress awaits me.”
“Welcome,” Jennet said, taking her cloak and showing her inside.
Kevis stared openly around the great hall. “You keep a fine house.”
Heaven entered through the far door. “My clients are generous,” she said.
Kevis cast her gaze downward. “I am sure my desire for generosity would match theirs, but the practicalities of my situation must impose limits upon it. I wish it were otherwise, but…” she trailed off and took a cloth bag out of her belt. It was a very small bag.
Jennet made to give the woman’s cloak back to her, but Heaven lifted a hand. “At ease, Jennet. As you have noted, our situation is hardly dire. We may exercise our own generosity, in this instance.” She smiled widely, showing her beautiful white teeth. “And should Madam Kevis wish to increase her gift later, she will have plenty of years to earn further gold.”
Kevis offered a smile of her own in return, but it was small and uncertain.
Jennet took the cloth bag — so light! — and tucked it into her pocket. “Follow me,” she said.
When she saw the bone cage in the center of the room, Kevis inhaled sharply.
The girl sat in her usual pose, cross-legged with her hands on her knees. She lifted her head and looked directly at Kevis. “Good day, my lady,” she said.
Kevis backed up, her hand fluttering to her mouth.
“That is a child,” she said. “I was told — Arlan’s people said — ”
Heaven stepped between her and the cage. “Said what? I hope you were not misinformed. Surely you did not believe it would suffice to spill the blood of bears or scorpions?”
“No, but — ”
“You expected a baby, my lady?” the girl said. Her voice was high and sweet. “One that would be easy to kill because it would not attempt to engage you in conversation? Would not plead with you to spare its life?”
Jennet stared. It was the most she had ever heard the girl speak.
“Hush,” Heaven said. “Come now, Madam. Do what you came here to do, and your failing heart will betray you no longer. You will be granted a new body, fit and healthy.”
She nodded to Jennet, who drew her dagger from its sheath and held it out. Kevis stared at it, her skin growing even more ashen.
“Still you hesitate?” Heaven said. “You can have no concerns, surely, if you have traded with Arlan’s household. You know the process works.”
“I know his lieutenant brought a baby to the castle, and that she rules in its name. Is the babe really Arlan? That, I do not know.”
Heaven shook her head sadly. “Such cynicism does not become you.”
“But maybe it will save you,” the girl said. “If this is not real and you die a murderer, what reward do you reap then?”
Heaven looked at Jennet. “This is why we should not wait as long between clients.” She turned back to the cage. “Sister, still your mendacious tongue.”
Kevis” gaze had not left the blade in Jennet’s hand. “Does it hurt?” she said.
“No,” Heaven said.
“Yes,” the girl said.
Jennet extended the knife towards Kevis. The older woman shrank from it.
The girl crawled to the front of the cage. “Listen to me, my lady. I have bargained with death before, and it has accepted my terms. This time, when I enter its embrace, it will not let me go. I will know the peace of oblivion. If this is what you desire then you are welcome to join me on my final journey. But if you wish to live then you should turn aside and follow this path no longer.”
There was silence in the room.
Kevis shook her head. “I am sorry for wasting your time, Mistress Heaven,” she said, her voice stiff and thin. She bowed, turned and ran back along the stone hallway with ragged steps.
Heaven sighed. Then she took the dagger from Jennet’s hand and thrust it through the bars of the cage and into the side of the girl’s throat. Blood coated the cage, the floor, and Jennet.
She stood, shivering, as Heaven rested the point of the knife against her own breast. “It is past time for my own rejuvenation,” she said. “Once it is done, go to the witch of my old estate. She”ll help you use the bones to find us.”
“Mistress,” Jennet said. “Oh, Mistress — ”
“What, girl? You, of all, know there can be no doubts. How many times have we done this? You know the magic delivers on its promise.”
Heaven pushed the knife, smoothly and sleekly, into her chest. Her lips parted and a small flower of blood bloomed stark against the whiteness of her teeth.
Jennet ran forward and caught her as she fell. “Oh, Mistress,” she said again. Heaven’s face still wore her frown, and it did not loosen as Jennet lightly kissed her forehead.
She laid the body gently on the flagstones. Heaven’s sister also lay crumpled and unmoving inside the cage. But the bones were all cracked and upon her face was a rapturous smile.
The cottage was exactly as Jennet’s mistress had always described it — small and squat, with stone walls and a lush garden filled with gamboling cats.
Jennet knocked upon the heavy wooden door and gave her name and a gift of tobacco to the servant who opened it. She bowed. “I seek help,” she said. “Where is the witch?”
“She rests,” Leon said. “I perform her duties now.”
“Then can you aid me, sir?” Jennet held up the bag of bones. “I have tried to use these to find my mistress, but they will not speak to me.”
“That is simple magic,” Leon said. “I will help you.”
He called to the cats, who soon brought him a fresh set of warm, steaming bones. “Hold your mistress” image in your mind,” he said.
Jennet closed her eyes and let Heaven’s face fill the darkness. She smiled.
Leon scattered the bones upon the grass. “Hold out your hand above them,” he said, and Jennet complied.
The cats sat in a circle around them, watching. They blinked silently.
“Do you see her?” Leon asked.
Jennet shook her head.
“Do you hear a whisper, then? As if made from the wind and rain, telling you where she is?”
Jennet shook her head.
“A feeling in your stomach, a sensation of being pulled towards her?”
Jennet opened her eyes. “No,” she said. “I see, hear, and feel nothing. This is how it has been for me every time I have tried.”
Leon frowned and threw the bones again. “Give me your hand and call up her image again,” he said.
Jennet did as she was told. Leon closed his eyes, then said, “Oh,”
“You have found her?” Jennet clutched his hand tighter. “You can see my mistress?”
“Only in your mind. Nowhere else.” He dropped her hand and stepped back. “I”m sorry, I cannot help you. She is not here.”
“Are you sure? She would not look as I picture her. She would be — ”
“A baby,” Leon said. “I know.”
“You are familiar with this magic?”
He looked away, and Jennet could not read his expression.
“Yes. And if she had been reborn, I could find her. But there is nothing.”
Jennet thought of the girl, the sister. Her talk of death, and her final smile of joy.
She shook herself. “It is merely taking longer than usual,” she said. “I will wait.”
The cats yowled. One leapt upon the back of Jennet’s horse and dug in its claws until the mare trotted to her side. As if the cat were telling her to leave. As if it were telling her that there was no reason to hope. That Heaven was gone.
She lifted the animal off the horse and set it down on the ground. What did cats know?
“My mistress will return,” Jennet said.
The red cat wound itself around her legs, and bit her foot.
Leon shook his head and slowly sank to the grass and pulled his knees up to his chin. He stayed that way for a long time.
“What ails you?” Jennet asked.
“I have need of these no longer,” Leon said. He gathered up the bones and threw them into the trees. “There is nothing left I care to look for.”
He drew a long, shuddering breath and pressed his palms to his face. “But my love has found what she was seeking, and for that I will try to be thankful.”
“I do not understand,” Jennet said.
“I know. And for that I envy you.”
“I care for none of this. I wish to wait here until you have found my mistress.” She looked down at the cat, which was lapping at the wound. “And if the cats want my blood, they can have it.”
Leon looked at her sadly. “That will buy you shelter here. But you will be waiting a very long time, my lady.”
Jennet lifted her chin. “I have a lot of both blood and patience. I also have faith that my mistress will return. As she has always said — where there’s magic, there’s life.”
Leon sighed heavily. “I was taught a different version of that saying,” he said. But he went inside and cleared out a room where the girl could stay. There would always be need of a new witch.
The cats drank their fill, then stretched out on the warm grass and purred.
|Michelle Ann King writes science fiction, fantasy, and horror from her kitchen table in Essex, England. She loves zombies, Las Vegas, and good Scotch whisky — not necessarily in that order — and her favorite author is Stephen King (sadly, no relation). She’s sold stories to a variety of anthologies and magazines, including Strange Horizons, Interzone, and Black Static, and her first collection Transient Tales is available in ebook and paperback now. See www.transientcactus.co.uk for links to her published books and stories.|